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Summer’s scarlet finish

Special to The Times

AS summer wanes, Sheila Riddell is, as always, tending her native plant garden with glee. She’s whacking back salvias, deadheading yarrow -- and waiting eagerly for great masses of California fuchsia to bloom.

“Just when everything else in the garden has finished,” Riddell says, “they come on with a brilliant red show.”

California fuchsias, known botanically as Epilobium but still called Zauschneria by many, are perennials and subshrubs from the dry slopes and rocky crags of California, Oregon, Wyoming, New Mexico and northern Mexico. In gardens, the plants are easy to grow, even boisterous, requiring little care. And their nectar-rich, sizzling scarlet blossoms -- sized just for a hummingbird’s beak -- open in late summer and fall, when most natives are dormant and very few are flowering.

This factor alone endears the scrappy plant to gardeners, who will find dozens of unique California fuchsias -- green and gray, spreading and upright, with red, orange, white or pink flowers -- at nurseries and plant sales this fall.

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“There are so many good ones,” says Bart O’Brien, senior staff research associate at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont and a coauthor of “California Native Plants for the Garden.” Among those that he recommends are a number of California fuchsias grown in horticultural trials conducted at the garden from 2002 through 2005.

Last September, O’Brien gathered a panel of eight outside reviewers (myself included) to evaluate 17 cultivars from the trials. All were cutting-grown clones, propagated, planted and grown under strict protocols, and identified by number only.

The evaluators viewed four slides of each clone and visited the test plants (10 of each) in their sun-baked field rows, half in loose alluvial soils, half in clay loam. Half of the subjects in each group received overhead watering, half drip irrigation.

All of the field subjects looked pretty lousy. Years of heat stress, root rot and insect pests (exacerbated by the monoculture) had taken their toll, O’Brien said.

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After examining flowering sprigs closely, reviewers ranked their top six choices according to foliage, flowers, growth habit and overall character (“my favorite”).

Zauschneria ‘John Bixby,’ a tight-growing sage green cultivar, came in first, followed by silver-gray ‘Bowman’s No.1'; silvery ‘Catalina’ ; and blue- gray ‘Splendens.’ Two plants tied for fifth: blue-gray ‘Hurricane Point’ and silver ‘Select Mattole.’ All the winners had red or orange flowers.

In fact, none of the plants with white, pink or salmon flowers did well in the evaluations or in the field trials. O’Brien says they got too much sun.

Yes, California fuchsias want sun, but those with upstate or high-elevation heritage need part shade in this region, especially inland. All trial plants at the botanic garden were in full blasting sun, and many suffered.

Provenance is the key. For clues, O’Brien says, look at the names. ‘Cloverdale’ denotes Sonoma County, ‘Hurricane Point’ is in Monterey County, ‘El Tigre’ is a mountain peak on Santa Cruz Island. (Sometimes, he says, laughing, you must do a little research.) ‘Catalina’ was found on that island. And ‘Route 66,’ a spectacular cultivar that flunked the trials but has proven itself in gardens, originated as a seedling that sprouted on Foothill Boulevard in Claremont.

How do California fuchsias get around? They wander on rhizomes (swollen underground stems). And their tiny, black fluff-covered seeds are picked up by the wind -- or savored by goldfinches -- and deposited elsewhere, says native plant gardener Trish Meyer of Wildscaping.com. Seeding, she adds, is not a problem in her untailored garden.

Marjorie G. Schmidt wrote of Zauschneria in “Growing California Native Plants”: “A country gardener has encouraged it to form a natural ground cover in dry places among native shrubs, and even admires the fly-away seeds in autumn.”

A real challenge for gardeners, O’Brien says, is distinguishing unwanted California fuchsia seedlings from the new growth of their parents. Their emergence is concurrent, and it’s hard to pluck one without damaging the other.

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One thing is clear. “They’re not good plants if you want neat and tidy,” says Anna Armstrong of Armstrong & Walker, Landscape Architects. “They ramble, spread and interweave with other flora.”

That look feels perfect to home gardener Riddell and husband Ed Alves. Their Monrovia garden has a limited palette but plants are displayed in very large groupings. “The overall effect is much more dramatic,” says Armstrong, who designed the garden with Richard Walker. “Especially the Zauschnerias -- they’re spectacular in masses.”

Though California fuchsias are nearly invincible, once established, the stems are brittle and break easily. Handle new plants gently, says Mike Evans of Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. Provide good drainage in the ground or in pots, and watch your watering (avoid drought stress and soggy soil). Fall planting, of course, is ideal.

Though utterly resplendent in peak bloom, all California fuchsias look, says O’Brien, “raunchy” in winter, and old clumps must be cut back in December or January. We’re talking stubs here. Vigorous new growth is almost instant. For bushy plants with more flowers, it helps to pinch once or twice in spring.

Water plants occasionally, feed them once (lightly, please) and come late summer -- when gardener and hummingbird are both craving color -- these tough natives will deliver in their most flamboyant way.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Red rovers

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California fuchsias are also known by one of two botanical names -- Zauschneria or Epilobium. So it’s a good idea to be familiar with both names, as you’ll find them used in references and by nurseries. There are dozens of named selections of these plants. The following superior candidates for Southern California landscapes are recommended in the book “California Native Plants for the Garden.”

Low growers (less than 1 foot): ‘Everett’s Choice’ spreads with furry white foliage and wide-mouthed orange-red flowers. ‘Select Mattole’ is a silvery ground-hugger with orange flowers. Both are fine container subjects. ‘Summer Snow’ has arching stems and spreading growth with triangular green to gray-green foliage and pure white blossoms.

Medium height (1 to 2 feet): ‘Brilliant Smith’ grows calf-high and slightly wider with bright green leaves and the largest individual flowers of any California fuchsia -- scarlet and up to an inch across. ‘Calistoga’ has knee-high stems, small red-orange flowers and oval gray foliage -- in fertile soil, the biggest widest leaves of any cultivar. ‘Hurricane Point’ arches and spreads, with short, thin blue gray leaves and fiery red blossoms in long-lasting clusters. Unlike most, this California fuchsia does not need annual pruning.

Tall ( more than 2 feet): ‘Catalina’ is tallest of all -- with almost white foliage and superabundant orange-red flowers. Give it space! ‘Route 66' grows to 3 feet and slightly wider with vivid green leaves and branched inflorescences with orange-red flowers. One of the latest to bloom.

-- Lili Singer

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Lili Singer can be reached at home@latimes.com


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