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Friday, October 5, 2012

Plant of the Month (October) : California Fuschia - Epilobium canum

October is often a dry month in local gardens. Many native plants have finished their growth and look like they’ve reached the end of the yearly season. Fortunately, a few native plants bloom – and spectacularly so – in fall. Among these is the native California Fuschia, Epilobium canum, which blooms anytime from July to November.
California Fuschia is a member of the Onagraceae (Willow-herb) family that includes such garden favorites as the common garden fuschia, evening primroses, Clarkias, and native Camassonia species. The genus Epilobium includes the lovely native Fireweeds as well as California Fuschia. The taxonomy (classification) of the Willow-herb family is still being sorted out – so we may need to update this post in the future. Long-time native plant enthusiasts still sometimes call California Fuschia by its older – but more interesting – name: Zauschneria californica. The name Zauschneria honored the 18th century German botanist Johann Baptista Josef Zauschner. The name Epilobium refers to the fact that flower and seedpod occur together and the species name canum refers to the ‘hairy’ aspect of this species.

California Fuschia is a plant of the west, growing from Oregon and Wyoming to Baja California. Our local sub-species grow in Coastal Sage Scrub, Chaparral and Oak Woodlands at elevations of up to 10,000 ft. You can still see California Fuschia growing wild on the Palos Verdes peninsula. In general, you’ll find local sub-species growing in dry areas, often on rocky slopes and cliffs, from San Diego Co. to Oregon.

In the garden, California Fuschia adds a spot of bright color at a time when the foliage of many native species has turned a golden brown. This species really begins growing in earnest in late spring/summer. In colder climates, the plant dies back significantly – and is also eaten by hungry critters - in winter. In our mild winter gardens, we cut the stems back after blooming to achieve the same ends. The plants start sending up new stems in spring – and really achieve their full growth in summer.

California Fuschia is a spreader, so don’t be surprised if a clump of Epilobium increases in size over the years. The stems of Epilobium canum are slender, part-woody and wand-like to almost vine-like. They usually form a mounded clump, but may fill in around other plants. The leaves are long and narrow or lance-shaped. The foliage color varies from a medium green, through pale blue-green to silvery. In fact, the natural variation in foliage color is the source of several common horticultural cultivars (see below).

California Fuschia’s flowers are spectacular. They are 1-2 inches long and up to an inch wide. They range in color from orange to almost scarlet red and are tubular or funnel-shaped. The anthers (male flower parts that produce the pollen) as well as the female parts extend well beyond the fused petals. The flower color, shape and location of the sexual organs are all good clues that California Fuschia is pollinated by hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are attracted like a magnet to these glorious flowers. Locate Epilobium near a seating area and you can observe hummingbirds from a distance of only a few feet!

You may wonder why we’ve included the decidedly orange-flowered Epilobium in our pink-and-purple themed garden. The answer is – for a sense of seasonality. Our pink/purple theme is most evident in spring and summer. By fall, the seeds of our buckwheat species are turning a rusty brown. Grasses and other plants are golden brown and the entire garden is decorated for autumn. Epilobium, with its bright orange flowers, adds the final touch of fall to Mother Nature’s Backyard.

California Fuschia used as ground cover - Ranch Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Epilobium canum
is easy to grow in local gardens. It can take just about any local soil – even those with pH around 8.0. It does well in full sun or part-shade. In full sun the form will often be a 2-ft. mound; in part-shade the stems create a low ground-cover (see above). As with common garden fuschias, you can pinch the tips of growing stems to form a fuller plant.

California Fuschia can be used in many ways in the garden. It makes a nice fall accent plant in mixed California native beds. We like it mixed with other native shrubs, where it fills in the bare spaces over time. California Fuschia can be used as a groundcover – alone or with other native groundcover plants. It will even do spectacularly in a large container.

California Fuschia adapts to garden conditions well. It is quite drought tolerant, but looks better with occasional summer water (Water Zone 2 or 1-2; see April, 2012 post on Water Zone Gardening). It can take winter flooding, which is useful for those of us who garden in clay soils. And in our experience, Epilobium is quite disease- and pest-free.

Seeds with fluffy 'wings' emerging from seed pod

Yearly maintenance is minimal. Cut the branches back to 1-2 inches after flowering to keep the plant looking tidy and healthy. You can use your cuttings to produce new plants if desired. You can also let the plants naturalize by seed. The seeds have fluffy wings (see above) that float on the wind and re-seed throughout the garden. The natural look is lovely – but the choice is yours.

There are several horticultural cultivars (types selected for garden use) that are readily available at native plant nurseries and sales. ‘Catalina’ has light blue-green foliage, large flowers and a long flowering season. ‘Wayne’s Silver’ has fuzzy, silver-white leaves, is more cold-hardy and needs more summer water. ‘Route 66’ is taller (2-3 ft) and more upright. ‘Silver Select’ is a low-growing form with silvery foliage. ‘Cloverdale’ has olive-colored foliage and orange flowers. New cultivars are being introduced all the time. We suggest that you purchase cultivars in the fall, when you can observe the flowers and foliage colors at their best.

Comment on you own experiences with California Fuschia below.

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