I have had the good fortune to live my entire life in the heart of North America's magnificent fuchsia land: the mild-winter, cool-summer, at- or near-sea-level climates of California, Oregon, and Washington. In these climates (USDA Hardiness Zones 9 through 10, west of the deserts and the Sierra Cascades), fuchsias seem almost incapable of failing, and unless their keepers neglect to supply one of the plants' requirements, fuchsias also seem incapable of mediocrity.
Fuchsias did not evolve in middle-latitude marine climates similar to the ones in our western America fuchsia land, or in fuchsia lands elsewhere: in France, Great Britain, Germany, Holland, much of coastal Australia, and New Zealand. No, the native regions of F. fulgens and F. corymbiflora, two of the three main ancestors of today's showy garden forms (F. hybrida), are in high elevations (3,000 to 9,000 feet) closer to the equator: 11° to 23° South. The third important ancestor originated near the cold-winter tip of South America, at 53? to 55? South. That predecessor, F. magellanica, is also the hardiest garden fuchsia that's widely grown today. If you live in a cold-winter area (the warmest parts of zone 6 for these tender beauties), one of the many varieties of this species is the fuchsia to try. For instance, F. magellanica 'Riccartonii' makes a handsome shrub or hedge, bedecked all summer and early fall with attractive, 1 1/2-inch, pendant red and purple flowers.
In mild climates, fuchsia plants thrive in their full range of forms: in hanging baskets or containers, or as 3- to 12-foot-high plants in the ground.
Fuchsias dislike consistently high temperatures. That makes them difficult to grow wherever sweet corn flourishes, because sweet corn begs for the same hot nights that make fuchsias collapse. During the growing season, fuchsias prefer temperatures in the 60° to 75°F range.
Also, fuchsias need light shade, not too much direct sun, and not much wind. They respond happily to generous irrigation from rain or from a garden sprinkler, but very high humidity does not benefit them. Their soil must be permeable and rich in humus, with a pH between 6 and 7.
Away from the West Coast, fuchsia cultivation varies from somewhat to considerably more difficult. The unfavorable climate factors are summers that are too hot (temperatures over 80° to 85°F), and winters that are too cold. Once daytime temperatures reach the low 40s, most fuchsias lose their leaves. Below freezing many die, and at 20°F, very few of the more than 600 hybrids can survive. Below 0°F, none survive.
Many gardeners in these unfavorable climates get around the fuchsia's petulance about hot nights by treating the plant as a one-season outdoor performer. They buy a fuchsia in a container (hanging or standing) in April or May, enjoy its myriad blooms until the very hot summers defeat the plant, and then they compost it. Or, from early summer to fall, they keep them from the heat in an east- or west-facing window, a shady porch, or other protective structure.
Some varieties definitely can take more heat than most. See the descriptions of 14 favorite varieties (below), or check nurseries, catalogs, or books.
Throughout the five- to six-month blooming season, care for fuchsia plants intensively, and if the growing conditions are right, they'll repay you with abundant blooms.
When fuchsia plants are growing well and you want more, they're easy to propagate. The most common method is to take tip cuttings (do it in October in mild climates, in late August in cold-winter climates). Cut off stem tips with four or five pairs of leaves, removing the bottom two pairs. Bury the stripped part in a mix of sand and peat moss. Put cuttings in light shade, and keep the growing medium damp.
In about six weeks, when roots have developed, move the cuttings into small pots. Pinch tips as they grow. Keep them in a freeze-protected place over the winter. Plant out the next year when danger of frost has passed.
The more difficult and more adventurous route (you get your own new varieties) is to sow seeds. Pick the ripe fruits that form at the bases of the fallen flowers. Cut them open, pick out the larger seeds, and sow them on the surface of a propagation mix. Then, follow instructions in any book on seed propagation of shrubs and trees. Collect seeds in the fall. Sow and grow in a heated greenhouse or just keep the seeds in a protected, not-too-dry place over the winter. Sow them in March (in California) or April (elsewhere) on a regular seed-starting mixture. You'll probably get vegetative growth (leaves and stems) the first year and flowering the second year.
If you keep a fuchsia over the winter, you should cut it back pretty hard in late winter or early spring. First, cut out all dead, broken, or weak growth. Then remove about as much growth on the remaining branches as formed the previous year. Cut back far enough to leave two or three pairs of buds on each branch base. (Fuchsia leaf stems and accompanying bud pairs always form in pairs.)
If winter lows will drop down into the mid-20s or lower, bring potted fuchsias indoors, and put them in a cool place until spring. Small container plants can stay outdoors if laid on their sides pot and all, and covered with sawdust. For plants in the ground, cut back branches and cover the base of the plants with sawdust.
Among the hundreds of fuchsia varieties sold in the United States, 14 are so good and so readily adaptable that they are sold, bought, displayed, and enjoyed everywhere that fuchsias can possibly be grown: the Pacific Coast; the Great Lakes regions; the Atlantic coast from the Carolinas north; and in New England. These varieties do not enjoy hot, steamy nights, but they tolerate them better than other varieties do. Flowers are single, semidouble, and double. The single flowers have four petals, the semidouble flowers five to eight petals, and double flowers more than eight.
To give you an idea of how long fuchsias have been popular and how many countries grow them, I've included the country and year of introduction for each variety. The kinds of fuchsia described here are all varieties of F. hybrida. Flowers of F. magellanica are always red and purple -- it's in plant size and growth habit that many named varieties differ.
'Autumnale' (Europe, 1880). Red and reddish violet flowers. Variegated yellow-and-green leaves turn to copper red. Hanging plant or shrub. Remarkably heat-tolerant.
'Billy Green' (Britain, 1966). Single salmon pink flowers. Vigorous shrub.
'Cascade' (United States, 1937). Single red and white flowers. Hanging-basket type.
'Checkerboard' (United States, 1948). Many single red-and-white flowers. Vigorous bush type. Remarkably heat-tolerant.
'Display' (Britain, 1881). Single flowers in violet and shades of pink. Bush type. Notably hardy.
'Dollar Princess' (France, 1912). Small, profuse double flowers are cherry red and rich violet. Bush type. Notably hardy. Remarkably heat-tolerant.
'Gartenmeister Bonstedt' (Germany, 1905). Long, tubular orange-red flowers. Dark bronze red-green leaves. Bush type.
'Hidcote Beauty' (Britain, 1949). Many single medium-sized flowers in cream and pale salmon pink. Bush type. Remarkably heat-tolerant.
'Lena' (Britain, 1862). Many semidouble flowers in coral pink and deep pink. Vigorous bush type. Hardy.
'Marinka' (France, 1902). The most popular fuchsia of all, with many medium-sized single red flowers. Hanging plant.
'Mary' (Germany, 1894). Bright scarlet single flowers. Dark green leaves with reddish purple veins. Bush form.
'Swingtime' (United States, 1950). Many scarlet, milky white, and cherry red flowers on vigorous plants. Hanging plant.
'Thalia' (Germany, 1905). Long, slender, light orange-red flowers. Bushy shrub. Fairly tender.
' Tom Thumb ' (France, 1850). Carmine and mauve-violet flowers. Bushy and hardy.
Joseph F. Williamson is a former editor at Sunset Magazine, and a principal author of Sunset's Western Garden Book (Sunset Publishing Corp., 2001; $37)
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association