Charles Plumier (1646-1704), a French monk & botanist, discovered and named many plants in honour of fellow botanists during his 3 plant hunting trips to the Caribbean’s and South America. Some of his most famous discoveries are Begonia, Fuchsia, Lobelia and Magnolia. In 1695, during his third voyage, while on the lookout for the Cinchona tree (quinine) on behalf of King Louis XIV, he discovered, sketched and described a new plant he found on the foothills of Hispaniola (nowadays Haiti & the Dominican Republic).
In 1703, Plumier formally published the name of his discovery as Fuchsia triphylla, flore coccineo, in honour of Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566), a German physician and botanist Plumier held in high regard for his De Historia Stirpium (1542), the first botanical work combining very accurate description and illustrations of plants depicting flowers, fruits and seeds together on the same plant. Fuch’s De Historia Stirpium, with its illustrations and botanical glossary, is the precursor of Botanical Illustration. Plumier died soon after in 1704, he is remembered in the Genus Plumeria.
Given the German origin of the name, we should actually be pronouncing Fuchsia as “fook-sya” ([fʊksja]), but the commonly used English pronunciation remains “fyusha” ([fjuːʃə]).
From over 100 species of Fuchsias, most originate from Central and South America, but a few come from New Zealand and have the particularity of having blue pollen. This pollen was used by young Maori people to adorn their face, probably well before the official discovery of the Genus.
The plant samples and seeds Plumier collected in Hispaniola, among which were possibly Fuchsia triphylla, were lost in a shipwreck. Fortunately, the drawings and description were travelling back to Europe on another boat. So actual plants of Fuchsia did not reach the UK before 1788, when Captain Firth brought 2 species back from his South American trips, these were probably F. coccinea from Brazil and F. magellanica from Chile. Although this has been disputed by many and may even be part of the embellished story told by a Fuchsia salesman, James Lee, to sell his plants. This story was however recounted by Dickens in Household Words.
In the next few years many more Fuchsia species reached the UK from South America and a plant hunting and hybridising craze soon began. The first hybrid was described in 1837; in 1840 the first cultivar with white sepals was obtained: ‘Venus Victrix’. Popular varieties still with us today followed, like ‘Tom Thumb’ (1850), ‘Riccartonii’ (1852), ‘Bland’s New Striped’ (1872). By contrast plants of Plumier’s original F. triphylla didn’t reach Kew before 1882.
Many hybrids arose simply by collecting berries and planting sheer numbers of seeds, selecting and naming only the best seedlings. Fuchsias were the Victorian Era plant by excellence and favoured by the Queen herself. They were grown in the thousands, sold at Covent Garden Market and grown into pillars, pyramids, standards, bushes and baskets by discerning gardeners. The two world wars slowed their popularity and food crops were now grown instead of Fuchsias. Between the two wars Fuchsia were taken to USA where intense breeding began, especially for giant blooms. Many of the giant trailing Fuchsia were raised there.
From Plumier’s original discovery to today’s newest Giant Fuchsias, there are now over 10000 registered cultivars worldwide, and Fuchsia history is still in the making!
Charles Valin, Plant Breeder at T&M