Fuchsia Riccartonii (Alarmy Stock)

Fuchsia ‘Riccartonii’ still looks fabulous more than 150 years after it was introduced
Copyright: Alamy Stock Photo

Fuchsia plants lend exceptional flower power to modern border schemes and container displays. But did you know that they were first introduced to the UK in the 18th century? Brush up your knowledge of the genus Fuchsia with plant breeder Charles Valin as he journeys from Victorian London to the cultivars we know and love today. 

Who discovered Fuchsias and where?

Map of Hispaniola, modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic, in 1639

Hispaniola, modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic, in 1639
Image: Joan Vinckeboons, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Plumier (1646-1704), a French monk and botanist, discovered and named many plants in honour of fellow botanists during his 3 plant-hunting trips to the Caribbean and South America. Some of his most famous discoveries are Begonia, Fuchsia, Lobelia, and Magnolia. During his third voyage in 1695, while on the lookout for the Cinchona tree (quinine) on behalf of King Louis XIV, he discovered, sketched, and described a new plant that he had 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 Fuchs in high regard for his De Historia Stirpium (1542), the first botanical work to combine very accurate descriptions with illustrations of plants depicting flowers, fruits, and seeds together from the same plant. Fuch’s De Historia Stirpium, with its illustrations and botanical glossary, is the precursor to all subsequent botanical works. Plumier died soon after in 1704, and is remembered in the Genus Plumeria (frangipani).

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, well before the official discovery of the Genus.

When did Fuchsias arrive in Britain?

Fuchsia ‘Eruption’ from Thompson & Morgan

Fuchsia triphylla cultivars produce stunning tubular flowers
Image: Fuchsia ‘Eruption’ from Thompson & Morgan

The plant samples and seeds Plumier collected in Hispaniola, possibly including Fuchsia triphylla, were lost in a shipwreck. Fortunately, his careful drawings and description were travelling back to Europe on another boat. Actual samples of Fuchsia did not reach the UK before 1788, when Captain Firth brought 2 species back from his South American trips – most probably F. coccinea from Brazil and F. magellanica from Chile. This has been disputed, 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 the magazine Household Words.

When were modern Fuchsia varieties created?

Fuchsia ‘Tom Thumb’ from Thompson & Morgan

Fuchsia ‘Tom Thumb’ was a favourite in Victorian London
Image: Fuchsia ‘Tom Thumb’ from Thompson & Morgan

In the early 1800s, 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 and in 1840 the first cultivar with white sepals was obtained and named ‘Venus Victrix’. Popular varieties still with us today followed, like ‘Tom Thumb’ (1850), ‘Riccartonii’ (1852), and ‘Bland’s New Striped’ (1872). By contrast, plants of Plumier’s original F. triphylla didn’t reach Kew until 1882.

Many hybrids arose simply by breeders collecting berries and planting sheer numbers of seeds, selecting and naming only the best seedlings. Fuchsias were a favourite plant in the Victorian Era and loved by Queen Victoria herself. They were grown in their thousands, sold at Covent Garden Market, and shaped into pillars, pyramids, standards, bushes, and baskets by discerning gardeners. Later, the two World Wars slowed their popularity, when growing food crops became a greater priority. Between the two wars, Fuchsias were taken to the USA, where intense breeding began focusing on giant blooms. Many of the giant trailing Fuchsias were raised there.

From Plumier’s original discovery to today’s newest Giant Fuchsias, there are thousands of registered cultivars worldwide and Fuchsia history is still a story in the making!

Charles Valin, Plant Breeder at T&M.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this fascinating history of the Fuchsia, and now feel inspired to explore the wonderful modern varieties available to gardeners today. For help and advice with growing and caring for your Fuchsias, visit our fuchsias hub page, where you’ll find a wealth of information and resources.

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