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Fuchsia denticulata (from cloud forests of the Andes mountains)

Fuchsias are flowering shrubs and trees which have gained vast popularity in the garden for their lovely colorful blossoms.  The genus has nearly 110 different species, most of which are indigenous to South America.  Additionally some fuchsias occur northwards into Central America and westward across the South Pacific on island chains such as Tahiti.  The genus extends all the way to New Zealand where the largest fuchsia, Kotukutuku (Fuchsia excorticata), is a tree which can grow to sizes of up to 15 meters (45 feet) in height. The majority of fuchsias however are much much smaller.

The plants were first discovered and named (by Europeans) on the island of Hispaniola in 1703 by Charles Plumier, a French Minim monk.  Plumier was a polymath who excelled at math, physics, painting, draftsmanship, woodworking, and the creation of scientific instruments.  He was appointed royal botanist in 1693 and cataloged the plants of the French Caribbean over the course of several voyages.  Plumier named the beautiful shrub after Leonhart Fuchs a Medieval German physician who was one of the three fathers of modern botany.

Portrait of Fuchs (Heinrich Füllmaurer, Tübingen, 1541)

The flowers of the fuchsia are teardrop-shaped dangling blossoms with four short broad petals and four long slender sepals.  These blossoms are usually extremely colorful in order to attract the animals which fertilize them–hummingbirds.  The flowers can be red, white, blue, violet, or orange, but the majority of fuchsias occur in lovely shades of pink and purple. The purple-pink color of many garden fuchsias is so distinct and characteristic that the color itself is now called fuchsia (and has been since the nineteenth century).  That is how one of the loveliest and most flamboyant of all colors (and one of the most nonexistent) has come to be named for a medieval German doctor!

A Hummingbird drinking from a Fuchsia

Fuchsias form a small edible berry which is said to taste like a subtle combination of mild grape and black pepper (although I have never “harvested” the plants in my garden).  There are immense numbers of hybrid fuchsias in cultivation in gardens around the world and whole horticultural societies devoted to the plant, yet it does not have the myth and mystique of other beloved flowers like roses, orchids, and lilies.  Perhaps the new world origins of the fuchsia have subsumed the folklore of the flower.  Whatever the case, fuchsias are a stunning garden treat. They are one of my favorite plants in my shady Brooklyn garden and fuchsia is a favorite color.

A collage of different fancy fuchsias

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