By Bobbie Stephenson.
California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), also called hummingbird flower and hummingbird trumpet, is the best species for luring hummingbirds into your garden. In its native habitat, this perennial produces prolific orange-red tubular flowers when few other plant species are blooming. These subshrub willowherbs of one to three feet high help feed hummingbirds (their primary pollinators) on their southward migration to wintering habitats in the Sonoran deserts of the U.S. and Mexico, and farther south to the tropics.
California fuchsia belongs to Onagraceae (known as the willowherb family or evening primrose family), which is characterized by flowers generally having four sepals and four petals. Sometimes, as in the Epilobium, petals are fused into a long tube that restricts most pollinators except hummingbirds. The family includes several popular garden plants, including many species of Oenothera (evening primroses) and Fuchsia. The original, and still-used genus name for Epilobium is Zauschneria, in honor of Johann Baptista Josef Zauschner, professor of medicine and botany in Prague. (E. canum is alternately known as Zauschneria californica and Zauschneria cana.) Epilobium refers to the flower and seedpod occurring together, and the species name, canum, refers to the plant's ‘hairy’ look.
Most E. canum can bloom for one to two months, with some starting as early as July and others continuing as late as December. The small leaves are hairy and usually glandular. Native populations are variable in appearance and habit, and the overall shape of the plant may be matting or mounding. Variations have led to subspecies in native habitats, including E. canum ssp. canum, which grows in coastal sage scrub and chaparral in California and northwest Mexico.
Epilobium seeds are very small and have tufts of hairs that make them easily dispersed by the wind. California fuchsia is easily propagated by seeds or cuttings, and it spreads on its own by rhizomes as well as by seeds. After the plants have been established for one or two summers, this subshrub should be cut back hard every winter after flowering but before new growth begins. Without trimming, the branches can get tall and wand-like and may fall over under the weight of the many flowers. Many cultivars of California fuchsia have been developed for the nursery trade. In addition to colorful flowers, many of the cultivars have distinctive foliage in colors varying from medium green, through pale blue-green, to silvery gray-green. Flower colors in cultivars range from the orange-red of the native species, to pink and even white. California fuchsia prefers full sun, but can take some shade in the hotter inland areas. They need little to no supplemental water, but some summer water will expand the blooming season.
Bobbie Stephenson is a board member and the newsletter editor for the California Native Plant Society San Diego Chapter.