Fuchsias are a familiar treat for humming birds

Since I spend a good portion of the summer stalking the local hummingbirds, I grow and overwinter a lot of tender plants that the little birds are familiar with from their winter sojourns in Central and South America. Among the best are fuchsias, several of which are in magnificent flower right now in the old laundry room in our basement.

Fuchsias are found primarily in the Americas. They were first introduced to Europe in the 1690s and named in honor of Leonhard Fuchs, a 14th century plantsman considered one of the three “fathers” of modern European botany.

The true petals on fuchsias form a tube, or flower, with a set of four colored sepals forming a halo around it. The blossoms can be white, cerise, pink or bluish purple, or bi-colored combinations of these colors. There are even a few kinds of fuchsia with orange and yellow blooms.

The fuchsia in our basement is considered a “hardy fuchsia’ (Fuchsia magellanica) since many members of the group will survive winters in zone 7 and even 6 (with winter mulch). They’re shrubs with woody stems, and may be 8 and even 10 feet tall and almost as much in diameter in areas with mild winters. Farther north, the plants die back to the soil line and sprout again from underground shoots. This limits their size to 4 feet.

My fuchsias winter indoors in pots; I want them as big as I can grow them. The one in flower right now is about 4 feet and crawling on the floor because I cut it back last autumn before hauling it inside. The grow lights in the basement don’t provide enough light for it to form hard wood, so the new growth is all soft and trailing. I suspect that growth will sunburn in the greenhouse, so it will be cut back again before it goes into the garden in late May. It’s getting a bigger pot, so I hope it’s twice the size when it comes back inside. It has cerise flowers framed in white sepas, and the hummingbirds love it, despite its color. Since the Wisconsin sunshine isn’t as harsh as southern light, I grow it in full sun. It’s only protected from the hottest afternoon rays.

My other fuchsia is ‘Gardenmeister bonstedt’ (Fuchsia boliviana). It has simple, tubular flowers that are a shade between coral and pink and foliage tinged with bronze. It sends up multiple stems and makes a bush about 3 feet tall, or a single stem can be trained into tree form. It’s very easy to propagate. I have a half dozen pots that winter in the part of our garage that never goes below freezing. ‘Gardenmeister’ tolerates full sun but thrives where it gets gentle morning light. I usually put my pots next to our favorite garden benches. The fearless hummingbirds will browse among the flowers just inches away from us if we don’t move around too much.

I’ve also grown what’s called Cape fuchsia, a South African plant (Phygelius) rather than a true fuchsia. It forms a clump about 3 feet tall with pastel flowers shaped like those on foxgloves. Sunbirds, the African equivalent of hummingbirds, feed on it. This plant is also tender and has to be hauled inside for the winter. The hummingbirds loved it, but I didn’t like it as much. I’ll take real fuchsias — flowers familiar to the hummers from their winter homes, any day.

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