Little ballerinas

Black Prince
Black Prince

A fuchsia’s ballerina-like blooms lift and brighten the gloomiest spots in our gardens, and most of us remember the large, flamboyant, double-flowered hybrids, those lovers of dappled shade, that were popular in our grandparents’ gardens. However advances in modern breeding have seen the development of fuchsias that tolerate sun, and varieties that flower over a longer period, as well as smaller varieties suitable for containers and baskets, such as the dwarf Shadow Dancer fuchsia. ‘Marcia’ is a stand-out favourite with bright red single flowers that contrast with its purple outer petals.

There are more than 100 species of fuchsia, most originating from lower and Central America, although there are species that are native to New Zealand.

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The native tree fuchsia, kotukutuku, ‘Fuchsia excorticate’

The native tree fuchsia, kotukutuku (‘Fuchsia excorticate’) is a welcome food source for bees and native birds, and is valued for its distinctive papery bark as well as its tiny flowers. This small tree can lose its leaves in colder areas during winter, but from spring through to midsummer, dainty chartreuse yellow and purple flowers appear – a pretty sight in the darkness of our native bush. A ground-hugging native option is ‘Fuchsia procumbens,’ which has small, round leaves similar to muehlenbeckia, and tiny, creamy-yellow flowers in summer.

Fuchsias are not difficult to grow, providing you get the basics right. Keep them away from strong winds, and intense heat and cold, and make sure your soil is moist but not wet.

Feed in spring with a slow-release fertiliser — plants flower on the current season’s growth so you’ll need a fertiliser high in nitrogen to promote new growth.

Old shrubs can be cut back to almost ground level to renew the plant (in frosty areas, don’t trim until after the threat of frost has passed).

One of the things I like about fuchsias is that they are so easy to propagate. Take your cuttings in summer and autumn, choosing non-flowering stems. The new, green stems that appear in summer after the first flush of flowers are ideal. Select stems about 10cm long with about three pairs of leaves. Trim off bottom leaves and put 5cm deep into propagating sand. Keep your cuttings moist and in a warm, well-lit place — roots should appear in a couple of weeks.

Fuchsias are also good topiary subjects. To create a standard select an upright stem, remove all side branches and stake. When the stem is at the desired height, pinch out the top to encourage branching. Keep nipping the tips off the side shoots until you have a full, rounded head then let it flower – a good topiary usually takes about two years to shape.

Slender and upright, ‘Preston Guild’ is a good choice where space is limited as in a narrow entrance — it produces hundreds of creamy-white and purple bell-shaped blooms that cascade elegantly down the plant. ‘Black Prince’ is a single, compact red and purple variety and, for a complete contrast, look for ‘Marcus Graham,’ a big, blowsy, double peachy-pink flowered plant.

If you’re after a plant with maximum bling appeal, one that will provide a summer of bold, beautiful blooms combined with minimum effort, then fuchsias are for you.