Fuchsia Lady says she's nuts about her plants but hastens to add that 'shrinks tell people gardening is good for you'

The first thing that tips you off that you have found the Fuchsia Lady's house is the white Pontiac parked out front. The license plate reads "Fuchsia." Any lingering doubts that this is the place disappear when you step inside.

For starters, there are the fuchsia posters hanging in the hallway. A large, built-in china cabinet in the family room has fuchsias painted on its porcelain knobs. Displayed inside the cabinet are antique tea cups and plates featuring likenesses of the plant.

Look around a corner to the living room and there is a sofa with needlepoint pillows on its cushions. Both have fuchsias on them. Behind the sofa on the wall is an original painting. The subject? You guessed it.

Then there is the bedroom. The wallpaper, drapes, bedspread and pillowcases are decorated with fuchsias.

"I'm crazy, you know, I'm nuts," the Fuchsia Lady explained as she held up her hand to display a couple of rings with the predictable shape. "This is nothing. I have fuchsia clothes coming out of my ears."

The Fuchsia Lady also goes by the name of Ida Drapkin. A gracious, spunky woman who just turned 65, she lives on a quiet street in Rancho Palos Verdes with her husband, Sid, a retired Army colonel. From the patio in the rear of their home, you can see the ocean and Point Dume.

One day this week, Drapkin was getting ready for the annual fuchsia show that will be held this weekend at the South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Her husband was helping, puttering around the fuchsias and half-listening as his wife made it clear that he is not the only passion in her life.

Drapkin is one of only 70 members of the South Coast branch of the National Fuchsia Society, which is sponsoring the weekend event. But many others share their fondness for the flower. If this year's attendance matches last year's, more than 3,000 people will attend the show. The chapter hopes the money it raises will someday be used to maintain a fuchsia shade garden at the county-operated arboretum.

Some of that money will come from the sale of the 3,000 fuchsia plants that Drapkin raises in her yard. They are lined up across the back of the house and along both sides. Shade cloth protects most of them from the sun's rays. Many are planted in the ground, but others are in pots of various sizes and shapes--just like the fuchsias themselves. She has shaped one plant to resemble a bonsai tree. All are hand-watered by Drapkin, who said she likes to keep on top of each plant's progress, or lack thereof.

"I like to see what's going on with them," she said as she stopped to inspect the leaves of a plant that looked a little wilted. "Oh poor baby. Too much heat."

Drapkin began growing the pink, red, and purple-blossoming plants at her home in the early '70s. Like many other people with an obsession--perhaps with a breed of dog or model of car--she has a hard time explaining why she picked these particular plants. "Why not?" the Fuchsia Lady said. "They give you more color than azaleas or camellias."

She said the weekend gardener can grow fuchsias, but acknowledged that it helps to have a lifetime of experience, as she has. Does she talk to her fuchsias? "I yell at them," she said.

She also makes sure that her fuchsias, some of which bloom year-round, get filtered sunlight and a little elbow room. "You must give them enough breathing space," she said.

Among the plants in her backyard are hybrids that she has developed over the years and, in some cases, named after fuchsia growers she has known. There is, for example, the Bonnie Doan Fuchsia and the Ray Weaver Fuchsia. Another hybrid is the Ruth West Fuchsia, named not after a grower, but a neighbor.

One misconception many people hold about fuchsias is that they must grow in baskets, Drapkin said. Not so. She said she urges people to plant them in the ground, where they are easier to care for. Once in the ground, some fuchsias grow to the size of trees. There is a species that hails from New Zealand, the excorticata, that can reach a height of 45 feet, she said.

Drapkin belongs to eight fuchsia societies all over the world. She also teaches a class twice a year at the botanic garden. "It's a great hobby," she said, and perhaps a therapeutic one. "A lot of shrinks tell people gardening is good for you, and I have met a lot of people through gardening who are nuts."

Although she had used the same word to describe herself, Drapkin quickly turned diplomatic and stressed that none of the nuts belongs to the local chapter of the National Fuchsia Society.

Sid Drapkin sometimes worries about the amount of time his wife spends tending the plants. She works about half of each day caring for them, taking only an occasional Sunday off, he said.

"I have to get her to cut down, it's entirely too much," he said, taking a momentary break from his own garden chores. He is concerned that, with all the attention given to the showy flowers, the couple's vegetable garden is suffering. The asparagus didn't do so well this year.

Sitting on her fuchsia sofa describing the gold fuchsia ring one of her two grown daughters is making for her (it is fashioned after a silver fuchsia ring she already owns), Drapkin admitted that she has thought about easing up a bit.

But not quite yet.

"I went to England for a fuchsia convention," the Fuchsia Lady said. "They're having a convention in New Zealand next year and I'm thinking about going."

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