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Gardening: fuchsias

Fuchsias are one of the garden's most attractive plants.

The many different and often bi-coloured flowers adorn a plant from the beginning to end of summer. When I was growing up in East Kilbride, the fuchsia in my garden was always a favourite.

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Fuschias originated in the Americas and have been grown in Europe since the 18th century. In 1753, the taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus, named Fuchsia tryphlla after the 16th-century physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs. This is surprising as it was the Jesuit priest Charles Plumier who probably brought the plant from Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and listed it in his Nova Plantarum Americanum in 1703.

Fuchsias broadly fall into two groups: tender half-hardy and fully hardy. Tryphlla are very tender and, unusually for fuchsias, tolerate full summer sun. But they should be cut back in the autumn and brought under protection.

In his influential 1883 book English Flower Garden, William Robinson advises that tender fuchsias should only be allowed to put on new growth once they've been brought out into the garden in May. This way they'll "go on … suspending graceful blossoms until the leaves desert the trees. They should then be taken up and put in a dry cave, cellar or shed for the winter." You might find it easier to use a heated greenhouse or conservatory rather than a dry cave in the back garden.

There's a fine selection of half-hardy cultivars suitable for containers. These are often grown as annuals, but in warmer, sunnier parts in the west of Scotland, you could treat them as perennials and bring them into the greenhouse for winter. Their roots are susceptible to frost damage in pots, so you should use fairly large containers to prevent roots growing against the side. You could also envelop the pot with bubblewrap.

Annabel is an attractive cultivar, tolerating temperatures down to 0C. It's a very free-flowering, upright shrub that grows to 30-60cm. The fully-double flowers, which have eight petals, have pink-striped white tubes, white sepals with a slight pink flush and pink-veined white corollas. Much more tender, but every bit as attractive, is Thalia. Growing to 45-90cm, this vigorous shrub's dark olive-green leaves with purple-tinged undersides support a mass of tiny rich orange-scarlet flowers.

Fuchsia magellanica is a much tougher specimen. The species was named after the Magellan Straits, where the French naturalist Philibert Commerson first found it. One of the hardiest magellanicas is Riccartonii. Writing for the St Andrews Botanical Society in 2010, Bob Mitchell says their Fife gardens have one that's 100 years old. Even the severe 1947 winter didn't kill it off: the foliage died back completely, but the plant put up new growth in spring.

We have John Young, the head gardener at Riccarton, near Edinburgh, to thank for this cultivar. In 1830, he was awarded a silver medal by the Caledonian Horticultural Society for first raising Riccartonii. With its blood-red sepals and deep purple or blue-violet petals, it quickly became a favourite hedging plant throughout the British Isles.

Because magellanica is distributed over 1500 miles in Chile and Argentina, it comes in a wide range of colour combos. Var alba, or Alba, is an albino form with white flowers tinged with mauve. The very hardy Mrs Popple has scarlet flowers and purple-violet sepals. Meanwhile, the slightly less hardy Lady Thumb with semi-double light carmine and white flowers is a fine dwarfing specimen.

If you're fired up to buy plants, check their hardiness, only planting fully hardy specimens outdoors and mulching well for extra frost protection. Fuchsias need moist but very well drained soil. They won't cope with wet conditions.

Finally, you can eat the fruit of any fuchsias. Some are apparently pretty tasteless, but the half-hardy F splendens is reputed to be the tastiest.

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