The mild, maritime climate that makes Ireland the ‘Emerald Isle’ also makes it perfect for plants from South America. But it also suits plants from New Zealand and Australia and in the past week I have seen two of the most remarkable fuchsia species in two gardens, Mount Usher and Glasnevin. Just to warn you though, these are not fuchsias as we normally see them so don’t expect big, pink, frilly flowers – these hardly have petals at all – I do keep saying that the flora on the other side of the world is odd! (my apologies to readers in the southern hemisphere who think our gardens ‘up here’ are weird!)
There are about 110 species of fuchsia, mostly from South America, and we can all recognise the typical, pendant fuchsia flower with the glossy colourful tube, the four sepals that open horizontally and the four petals, the whole thing typically in red and purple. These two, though, are not only different in flower shape and colour but include the biggest and tiniest species!
First we have Fuchsia excorticata, a big plant with a tongue-twisting name and tiny flowers. In fact it is the biggest fuchsia species. In New Zealand it grows along rivers and is a common shrub, growing up to 13m high. It is distinctive because of the cinnamon, peeling bark that sets it apart from other species. Its Maori name is kotukutuku and the berries are edible (like all fuchsia fruit). It is said that they were used widely by European settlers to make jam and fuchsia growers often use the fruits of cultivated fuchsias for this purpose. The leaves of F. excorticata are a favourite food of the bushtail possom which, when introduced to New Zealand, did a lot of damage to the species. The flowers change colour as they age, opening green and purple and changing to red. Most fuchsias have flowers on young stems, in the leaf axils but these flowers are produced on older stems and often growing from the surface of bare branches.
Not surprisingly, it is not a common plant in European gardens because it is huge, not very hardy and has small flowers!
Fuchsia procumbens could not be more different. It is native to the North Island of New Zealand where it grows by the sea, often where it is regularly covered in spray. This is the world’s smallest fuchsia and is a low, creeping plant just a few cm high. It would be daft for a low, creeping plant to have flowers that hang down so F. procumbens has blooms that face upwards! These have no petals but are attractive because of the short yellow tube and dark red sepals that are green where they fold back on themselves. But the flowers are most famous for the stamens that are red at first but split to shed blue pollen. If they are pollinated the flowers are followed by comparatively large red berries. This plant is quite popular with gardeners because it is easy to grow if you protect it from frost and it doesn’t take up much room. It is not fussy about soil and does best with a little shade. It can be easily propagated from cuttings and there is also a variegated form that is probably more worthy of cultivation. It is a pretty plant for the front of the greenhouse bench in the UK where it will trail down delicately.