Gardening: Late summer flowers 2: Fuchsias & Lobelias - Forgotten treasures
Two recently neglected varieties can bring colour to the darkest corners
Sunday 31 August 1997
The late 19th-century garden writer, Canon Ellacombe, described houses in the Orkneys "covered in fuchsias from ground to the roof, with spaces cut out for the windows. A few years ago, it was considered bad taste to admire a fuchsia, but I always valued them as bright objects in the autumn garden and I am told that they are once again becoming fashionable." Since their revival at the turn of the century, when fuchsias were popular conservatory plants, they have lapsed from favour again. I rarely see them in inland gardens and wonder why we make so little use of these easy flowering shrubs.
Fuchsia "Riccartonii" is the one that favoured seaside counties can grow as hedges. The rest of us should be able to keep it through the winter, but would never be able to grow it head high. After a mild winter, green sprouts may appear from the woody branches a foot or two above the ground, but more usually the shrub will behave like a herbaceous perennial, which dies right down when the frosts come and then produces new growth from underground the following spring. This does not matter. The plant will still flower from late July until the frosts. Crimson and purple, like "Cardinals' robes", "Riccartonii" will make pools of colour in the darkest shrubbery. But it will need a rich, water-retaining compost when you plant it and an annual mulch to keep it damp. Maritime climates have moist air which suits fuchsias: in dry places they will need careful growing.
A coloured form that is hardier than most is "Brutus", but it is a strong purple and pink number. This one has the RHS Award of Garden Merit. "Madame Cornelisen" is also hardy, its crimson and white flowers are a less exacting colour than the strong purples and reds of most hybrids. "Chillerton Beauty", a pinky mauve, is another one for those who prefer pale flowers. For gar- deners who like very faint and faded effects, the fuchsia to grow is magellanica "Versicolor". This has grey and pink leaves and graceful dropping flowers in palest pink. The ordinary form, with white flowers and green leaves, looks even more washed-out but this is one of the hardiest and can make quite a substantial bush. Put it somewhere where you will not be offended by its bare woody branches all winter.
Many of the more glamorous fuchsias will not survive a winter out of doors, but they look good in pots. Unless you are a specialist, the differences between the big hybrids are marginal, but there are two varieties which I would always want to grow. One is "Lye's Unique" which is a tall and graceful fuchsia with coral and white flowers. The other is "Thalia" with dark leaves and orange scarlet droppers. Cuttings of these can spend the winter on a sheltered window ledge.
Anyone who can overwinter a plant has the chance to grow the standard variety fuchsia. They take two years to mature, but the wait is rewarded with a huge head of flowers on a single woody stem. The other advantage of a standard is that fuchsia-popping children often cannot reach the buds.
Whitefly do attack the soft growth of these plants, but they seem to be able to cope with this if they are not too stressed by lack of water. Most well-grown plants can throw off pests and diseases. In extremis, Rapid, which is not harmful to beneficial insects like bees, ladybirds and lacewings, is the insecticide to choose. Thrips (another plant pest) can also be a nuisance and delay flowering. They are harder to control out of doors, but biological control is possible under glass.
Lobelias are thought of as tender plants, but breeders have been busy on our behalf and there are now several sorts which are not too difficult to keep through the winter. These are not the blue bedding lobelias of hanging-basket fame, but tall spikes of red or purple which make a dramatic exclamation mark in any summer flower bed. Lobelia cardinalis, which has been grown here since the early 17th century, has green leaves and scarlet flowers and is hardy, and there is now a pinky-white form of this which is perhaps a more universally acceptable colour than red. For those who do enjoy red, "Queen Victoria" is one of the best known with dark beetroot leaves and scarlet flowers. A new darker plant, "Dark Crusader" with crimson flowers and dusky green leaves is also said to be reliably tough, unless the winter is exceptional. For lovers of purple (rather a dingy mauve really), "Vedrariensis" is another durable lobelia. Gardeners who want blue flowers can choose Lobelia siphilitica, but it does flop about. Like all lobelias it needs rich, damp conditions in summer and a dry, sheltered place in winter. But even the fussier forms can be kept with the help of a bell jar, or a cloche over the plants in winter. Lobelia tupa, the best of all varieties, has survived four Cotswold winters. For those who like the strange and the beautiful, this is the one to go for. Tupa's large, pale green leaves and spikes of coral flowers can reach 6ft if it is happy.
In August, the lush leaves and fresh flowers of lobelias can lift the spirits. Growing them is not as difficult as fuchsias if you respect their need for water in summer and their inclination to rot in winter if waterlogged. Like fuchsias, lobelias provide the "bright objects in the autumn garden" that Canon Ellacombe admired. Cheaper than bedding and much more original, both these neglected plants add valuable late-summer colour. !
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