Epilobium canum and Trichostema (c) 2004 Orchid Black

Epilobium canum and Trichostema © 2004 Orchid Black

California fuchsia (Epilobium canum and others) is one of the star bloomers of this time of year, accenting the landscape with bursts of color in fiery red and orange, which contrasts beautifully with olive or silvery foliage.  Hummingbirds dive close to the ground for its nectar right now.  California fuchsias are mostly drought-tolerant and love sun, unlike their cousin and namesake, the garden Fuchsia, though it is in the same Evening Primrose family.

It is an important nectar source for hummingbirds at this time of year, and bridges the gap for hummers between the sage (Salvia sp.) in summer and the blooms of currants (Ribes sp.) and manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp.) which start flowering in December.

California fuchsia has suffered from the botanical “lumpers.” It used to have its own name, Zauschneria, which was hard to learn but fun to say.  But the “lumpers” have lumped it in with Epilobium, otherwise known as fireweed, a plant which is horticulturally very different, growing in moist meadows instead of on dry slopes.

California fuchsias range from low mat-forming plants to shrubby perennials up to five feet high, though most are two to three feet high by about the same wide.  Many spread by rhizomes underground, making them a good choice for filling in slopes between deep-rooted California shrubs.  California fuchsia can look best spilling over rocks, as I have seen in the local mountains.

East of California, Epilobium canum ssp. latifolium is sometimes called Fire Chalice, which stirs the imagination in a way that California ( not really a) fuchsia doesn’t.  I’ve wondered why few of the variety names attached to California fuchsia have much romance.  There are Lipstick dahlias and daylilies, and Firecracker penstemon, but there is no Firecracker California fuchsia, or Scarlet Lipstick California fuchsia.  It’s almost as if horticulturists don’t want to let people know how brightly colored it is.

E. canum (c) 2005 Orchid Black

E. canum © 2005 Orchid Black

Varieties are mostly named by place, such as Select Mattole, Uvas Canyon, and Catalina, and by foliage color, like Silver Select and Wayne’s Silver.  Most love sun, but a few, such as Catalina, and varieties from Northern California, tolerate light shade.

Most of the fuchsias are almost fully deciduous, leaving brown stems with brown leaves attached after their fall bloom.  Because of this they are best used only as an accent.  November and December is a good time to cut the stems close to the ground, after harvesting the fluffy seedheads to share or to prevent seeding.  Some experts say to “mow it,” to emphasize how much they should be cut back.  The plant will bounce back with new stems the following year.

Some lower-growing forms such as Select Mattole and Everett’s Choice don’t need to be cut back to look good.  The lowest-growing form that I know is Select Mattole.  Coming from Northern California, it needs more water than others.  Very old plants may get brown in the center, but otherwise, both varieties form a neat low mat year-round.  Low varieties, though a good choice for a parkway because of their lack of height, they are brittle and could break from foot traffic in a heavily traveled area.  Care should also be taken when planting them, as major stems can easily break.

As planting season is almost here, planting some California fuchsias this year will bring color and hummers to the garden this time next year.