Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Fuchsia at the side of All Saints Church, East Finchley
Dear Readers, I have always been fascinated by the flowers of the fuchsia. They remind me of dancing ladies with twirly skirts. There are the hardier, shrubbier ones like the ‘Hawkshead’ variety in the picture above. Then there are the more delicate ones, some with enormous flowers. There are several fine fuchsia hedges in the County Roads in East Finchley, all in full flower at this time of year.
Fuchsia on Durham Road, East Finchley
Yet, these plants are a very long way from home. Most fuchsias come from Central and South America, with a small contingent in New Zealand, Hispaniola and Tahiti. In their native countries the flowers are mostly bird-pollinated, which explains why they are usually red – birds are attracted by the colour, bees not so much.However, some of our native birds, particularly starlings and sparrows, have learned to take advantage of the nectar, and so have bumblebees, those Einsteins of the insect world.
The fuchsias from Oceania are extremely exotic-looking plants, not the kind of things that you would see in your average hanging basket. Here, for example, is the New Zealand fuchsia, Fuchsia procumbens, a creeping plant rather than the more familiar bushy one.
Fuchsia procumbens, from New Zealand
And here is another New Zealand fuchsia, Fuchsia excortica, or the fuchsia tree. It grows up to 50 feet tall and is the largest of all the fuchsia species. I am particularly taken with the blue pollen.
The Pacific fuchsias are said to have diverged from the rest of the family over 30 million years ago.
Fuchsia excortica, or the fuchsia tree.
However, the plants that we grow in our gardens are largely from the South/Central American side of the family. There are an extraordinary number of varieties, as you will find at any garden centre (or in the photo below from the 2011 BBC Gardeners’ World Show). Most of these pretty plants will not survive the winter, but they do grow very well from cuttings.
Cultivated fuchsias at the BBC Gardeners’ World show
Fuchsias are named after the eminent German physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501 -1566). We should probably therefore be pronouncing the flower as ‘fooks-ya’ rather than ‘fyusha’, although I can see that misunderstandings might arise from the first way of saying the name. Furthermore, the Latin pronounciation would be ‘fook-see-a’ which might be even more problematic. Better to stick with ‘fyusha’, on balance, incorrect or not.
You might think that such a tender plant would not naturalise easily in the UK. However, Fuchsia magellanica, or the hardy fuchsia, is very at home in places such as the west of Ireland with its damp, mild climate, and can be seen making a psychedelic display alongside the naturalised montbretia,
Or, you might see the plant happily engulfing an abandoned tractor.
Fuchsia magellanica engulfing a tractor in Kerry, Ireland
Whenever I see a fuchsia bush, I always have a good look to see if I can see any of these extraordinary creatures.
Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor)
This is an elephant hawk moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor
). Although its native food source is willowherb and bedstraw, it seems to have taken a liking to fuchsia. If you have some of the plant in the garden, it’s always worth checking out, though don’t be surprised if the three-inch long caterpillar rears up and takes on the appearance of a four-eyed snake. I should think that this would be enough to scare any inquisitive bird out of its wits.
The adult moth is an extraordinary candy-coloured creature.
Elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor)
You might think that the flowers of the fuchsia would be a pretty addition to a cake or a summer drink, and you’d be right – unless they’ve been sprayed with something, the flowers of all fuchsia species are edible. What I didn’t realise was that the berries are consumed wherever the plant grows wild, from Costa Rica to Hispaniola. The taste varies from deliciously sweet to ‘meh’. For some fuchsia berry jam recipes, and an interesting guide to edible fuchsias, have a look at the ‘Fuchsias in the City’ blog here.
The berries were also used by the Maori in an aromatic post-childbirth bath, and the flowers can be used to produce a red dye.
You might expect such a handsome and exotic plant to feature in a few still-lives, and here it is, indeed.
Lilies and fuchsias by Johan Laurentz Jensen (1800-1856) (Public Domain)
But here it is attracting the attention of Egon Schiele, better known for his self-portraits and his explicitly sexual nudes ( one of the more ‘Safe For Work’ examples is shown below). Schiele painted very few still lives, and i wonder if the exotic form of the flowers was what fascinated him, as it does me. There was something of a hothouse atmosphere in Vienna when he was painting there, for sure.
Incidentally, for anyone wanting to see an exhibition of the drawings of Schiele and his contemporary, Klimt, there is a link to the Royal Academy’s 2018 show here.
Fuchsienzweige by Egon Schiele (1910) (Public Domain)
Green Stockings by Egon Schiele (1914) (Public Domain)
Finally, I cannot here the word ‘fuchsia’ without thinking of Lady Fuchsia Groan from Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary Gormenghast trilogy. Lovely readers, you can keep your Lord of the Rings, just leave me in a quiet corner with Gormenghast and I’ll be happy for at least a week. If you love all things gothic and slightly twisted, if you enjoy a building that’s as much a character as the humans, you’re in for a treat. Ignore the TV series of a few years back -nothing can encapsulate this strange, rich world.
Fuchsia is the sister of our hero, Titus Groan. She is 15 when he is born, and, being a girl, she cannot inherit and is furious with her little brother for existing at all. She expresses great glee when he is dropped on his head during the naming ceremony, which involves him being wrapped in the pages of the book containing all the law of Gormenghast. Peake introduces her to us thus:
‘As his lord stared at the door another figure appeared, a girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered.
A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her shapeless dress was a flaming red.
For all the straightness of her back she walked with a slouch. ‘Come here’, said Lord Groan as she was about to pass him and the doctor.
‘Yes father’, she said huskily.
‘Where have you been for the last fortnight, Fuchsia?’
‘Oh, here and there, father’ she said, staring at her shoes. She tossed her long hair and it flapped down her back like a pirate’s flag. She stood in about as awkward a manner as could be conceived. Utterly un-feminine – no man couldd have invented it.
“Here and there?” echoed her father in a weary voice. “What does ‘here and there’ mean? You’ve been hiding. Where, girl?”
“‘N the libr’y and ‘n the armoury, ‘n walking about a lot”, said Lady Fuchsia, and her sullen eyes narrowed. “I just heard silly rumours about mother. They said I’ve got a brother — idiots! idiots! I hate them. I havn’t, have I? Have I?”
“A little brother”, broke in Doctor Prunesquallor. “Yes, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, a minute, infinitesimal, microscopic addition to the famous line is now behind this bedroom door. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, he, he, he, he! Oh yes! Ha ha! Oh yes indeed! Very much so.”
“No!” said Fuchsia so loudly that the doctor coughed crisply and his lordship took a step forward with his eyes drawn together and a sad curl at the corner of his mouth.
“It’s not true!” shouted Fuchsia, turning from them and twirling a great lock of black hair round and round her wrist. “I don’t believe it! Let me go! Let me go!”
As no one was touching her, her cry was unnecessary and she turned and ran with strange bounds along the corridor that led from the landing. Before she was lost to view, Steerpike could hear her voice shouting from the distance, “Oh how I hate people!”.’
And how this exchange conjures up all the overheated arguments of the teenage years. Gormenghast is wild fantasy, but Peake’s characters are never less than human.
An ink drawing of Fuchsia Gormenghast by her creator, Mervyn Peake (Public Domain)
For more on the Gormenghast Trilogy and Mervyn Peake, have a look at the Gormenghast website here.
Photo One (New Zealand Fuchsia) by By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44396021
Photo Two (Fuchsia Tree) by By I, Tony Wills, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3016263
Photo Three (cultivated fuchsias) by By Andy Mabbett – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15531853
Photo Four (tractor and fuchsia) by Sharon Loxton [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five (Elephant Hawk Moth Caterpillar) by By Richerman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Six (Elephant Hawk Moth) by By jean pierre Hamon (14) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2845396