Coming Back After Cold
Where winter froze the bones of tender garden favorites, it’s always wise to wait a while before deciding if a beloved plant is truly toast. Judging by readers’ questions, hardy fuchsias were especially hard hit, notably those that were exposed to wind and/or morning sun (water in frozen plant cells tends to explode if thawed too quickly by direct sunlight after freezing nights, while plants that get direct sun later in the day and thaw more slowly generally survive and regrow from the roots, though top growth may be killed). This is one reason why we plant hardy fuchsias a couple of inches deeper in the ground than they were in the pot, as it takes soil longer than air to reach freezing temperatures, offering a bit more protection to the roots. Most of the hardiest fuchsias are upright shrubs that can take quite a bit of frost and still rebound from the base. If the roots are well established, new stems will shoot up and be producing blooms by mid summer. Indeed, many gardeners routinely prune back hardy fuchsias in mid to late spring to encourage sturdy new growth and avoid the twiggy tangles that can disfigure unpruned shrubs.
Hanging basket fuchsias are generally spillers and sprawlers that are less hardy than the upright types, and if they experienced the deep cold when their soil was bone dry, they’re probably history. If their pots or baskets were protected in a garage or sunporch and kept moderately moist during their hibernation, even the less-hardy fuchsias are likely to be showing some buds at the base of each stem, if not already leafing out. Bring the survivors out into the light, trim the dead stems back to an inch or so above the swelling buds, and keep their soil moist but not saturated. Top off the pots or baskets with an inch or two of compost mixed with garden soil, and give the recovering plants half-strength fertilizer every couple of weeks to help them replenish their top growth and form flowers. By mid to late June, start feeding at full strength and continue every two weeks until late September, when most of them will start to go dormant again.
Pollinators Love Fuchsias
When you pack your garden with fuchsias, as I do, you notice that though honeybees aren’t drawn to their dangling bells, quite a lot of pollinators do appreciate them (at least the single-blossom types: tightly packed double blooms are impenetrable by insects and even the hummingbirds tend to ignore them in favor of more accessible blooms). Both mason bees and bumblebees eagerly visit the earliest fuchsias to flower, along with hummingbirds, which probably have some sort of racial memory for these South American super nectar producers. The first fuchsias were introduced to Europe from the Dominican Republic in the late 17th century, and by the Victorian era there were hundreds of UK hybrids, from bitty miniatures to strapping, 10 foot high hedge plants. Most of the oldest garden favorites are forms of Fuchsia magellanica, hailing mainly from mountainous regions of Chile and Southern Argentina. These hybrids and selected forms range from the dainty cream and baby pink bobbles of Maiden’s Blush, on stems that can stretch 8-10 feet high and wide in mild winter areas, to the fiery little red-over-purple rockets of F.m. Thompsonii, a semi-evergreen, 3-5 foot shrub popular in English gardens since 1840.
My little garden is full of hardy fuchsias, especially compact forms that thrive in partial shade. There are quite a few tiny fuchsias, with teeny leaves and minute flowers, but since I’m gardening as much for the birds and bees as for my own pleasure, I focus mainly on garden forms that produce large, showy blossoms that bring in the hummingbirds. One of my favorite little ones is Tom Thumb, which gets 18-24 inches tall, with showy red skirts (tube and sepals) over purple underslips (petals). This extremely free flowering shrublet dates back to 1850 and was named to honor Charles Stratton, an American proportionate dwarf who toured extensively with P.T. Barnum’s celebrated circus, performing as Tom Thumb. Another sweet shortie, Lady Thumb, is a more recent hybrid (1966) and equally free flowering. She tops out around 18”, with carmine pink skirts over pink-veined, white petals. Both live happily in the narrow, shady bed atop our northern retaining wall, keeping the limited space cheerful with bright blossoms all summer long.
Long Bloomers & Lovely Leaves
Another among the longest bloomers is Lady Boothby, introduced in 1939 and named for the first president of the British Fuchsia Society (who was hand picked by Queen Mary). This compact, vigorous shrub gets about 3 feet high, with ember red tube and sepals over smoky, dark purple petals. The profuse flowers attract numerous pollinators, including moths, butterflies and hummingbirds. Similar in size, Mrs. Popple produces masses of slender blooms with narrow rose red skirts over slim, violet slips from early spring until late autumn, often opening a few belated blossoms through the winter. I don’t usually cut this one back hard because those late blooms keep the hummingbirds coming and it’s apt to be blooming already by the time I’m trimming my other fuchsias.
Some of the loveliest fuchsias have stunning foliage as well as pretty flowers. Glowing, gilded Genii is a real show stopper, combining bright golden yellow leaves with ruby-over-purple flowers on 2-3 foot stems. Those marvelous leaves can scorch in afternoon sun but shine boldly in light shade, especially if the shrub gets a few hours of direct morning light. Another favorite foliage fuchsia is Autumnale, a stunning prostrate subshrub with wide-spreading arms decked with golden foliage tinted with copper, bronze, and ruddy cinnamon. The flowers are rose and soft purple, definitely outshone by the leaves but attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies nonetheless. This one is on the tender side and even in my (usually) mild winter region survives most reliably when grown in a pot and overwintered under shelter or in my unheated sunporch. As far as I can tell, it hardly matters which fuchsia you choose; the pollinators will enjoy them all!