The Dry Garden: Planting California fuchsia and lookalike blooms


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Timing is everything when you’re a plant in a place with little water and lots of competition. Our native California fuchsia, Zauschneria californica, has patience. It remains sedate as the native sages and lilacs burst into spring blossom. Then, as the early bloomers slip into summer dormancy, this discreet gray-green shrub flowers, and flowers, and flowers, often straight through autumn.

These deep orange -- to some eyes, red -- flowers could command attention in a crowd, but in a muted midsummer garden, they’re positively luminous. To one type of pollinator, this radiance amounts to a neon restaurant sign on a dark highway -- but a restaurant open to only one animal. Zauschneria’s slender, tube-shaped blossoms are nature’s design for a hummingbird feeder. Hence the nickname ‘hummingbird fuchsia.’


To overemphasize the beauty of Zauschneria’s flowers would be to neglect the foliage, which comes in the bluish hue that paint companies might call seafoam green. Fail to prune the branches, and the inner leaves will become golden, even red, a quality that I like, particularly on years that I forget to prune, which is every year. If you too fail to cut back Zauschneria in late fall, give it a hillside in which to range, or better yet, a steep ledge from which to tumble. Gardeners not of the laissez-faire sort tell me that pruning gives Zauschneria better form and denser foliage.

How far it will need pruning will depend on the cultivar. Zauschneria comes in many cultivars that could be classed as everything from mat-like groundcover to shrubs as tall as a fourth grader. To see the many hybrids tested for color, bloom time and shape, there is no better place to go than Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. Of more than 50 named selections mentioned by ‘California Native Plants for the Garden,’ co-written by Rancho horticulturist Bart O’Brien, the cultivar Everett’s Choice is praised for its compactness; Brilliant Smith is described as a good medium-height (1 to 2 feet tall) plant; and Catalina is recommended as a larger specimen. Click to the jump for more on Zauschneria and a lookalike plant that can grow from cuttings, Dicliptera.

It’s confusing that Zauschneria has another botanical name, Epilobium, the result of changing thought among taxonomists about the plant’s evolution. Many gardeners, including myself, still use Zauschneria, less in reverence to the 19th century Czech botanist Zauschner and more because we know it. If you can’t find Zauschneria under Z, look under E.

Some say Zauschneria is rhizomatic, or that it spreads through the roots; mine has nowhere to go, so I can neither confirm nor challenge this notion. O’Brien writes that Everett’s Choice produces ‘copious seedlings,’ a boon in a groundcover.

For those who want to cover significant space, but can’t wait for the seedlings, a poor man’s Zauschneria might be a similar plant out of Uruguay, Dicliptera suberecta. This flowers at much the same time as Zauschneria and has much the same habit and every bit as vibrant flowers.

Dicliptera also is so tailored to hummingbirds that an alternate name is “hummingbird plant.” However, Dicliptera can be propagated easily by clippings. After a month in a regularly refreshed vase, Dicliptera clippings should have visible roots. If you buy one plant, within a year you could have a hedge.

To see Dicliptera in a public garden, try the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts garden in Alta Loma.

Dicliptera can be hard to find at nurseries, but Dave’s Garden lists it as available through mail order.

Dicliptera’s leaves are grayer than Zauschneria’s, plumper and downright velvety. They look great all year with almost no downtime except a short interval after pruning. If you live with any danger of frost, stick with Zauschneria. It’s woodier.

Both Zauschneria and Dicliptera appreciate some summer water, but the latter is thirstier. It will let you know when it’s time for water by withering slightly. Weekly light watering is a good idea for both types, as much to plump out their leaves and keep the nectar flowing as to clear away cob webs.

Closing note: In my last column, I noted that the Los Angeles City Council was likely to approve recommendations of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power commissioners to change the present two-day lawn watering ordinance to a four-day, alternate-side-of-the-street system. That didn’t happen. Instead, the Council asked the DWP to consider a three-day system promoted by San Fernando Valley Councilman Greig Smith. I have to agree with the Times editorial board, which wrote that the situation is a fiasco. Until a new ordinance is approved, the old system limiting watering to Mondays and Thursdays is still law. Updates as they happen in the news pages and here.-- Emily Green

Green’s column appears here every Friday.

Photos, from top: Zauschneria in bloom a year after the 2003 wildfire at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times. A detail photo shows the orange-red blossoms of the Zauschneria ‘Catalina.’ Credit: Los Angeles Times. The lookalike flowers of Dicliptera make the Uruguayan plant an enticing alternative. Credit: Emily Green. The velvety foliage holds appeal, even when Dicliptera is not in bloom. Credit: Emily Green