Too popular for its own good?

Plant of the month: Fuchsia

Is it possible for a plant to suffer from overexposure? Not to the elements, nor to anthropogenic pollutants, but through overbreeding and too much publicity? In the case of Fuchsia, a genus of floriferous shrubs and small trees, the answer is a resounding yes. A cultural history of fuchsias focusing on their heyday in France and Europe, which lasted from the 1850s to the 1880s, offers a cautionary tale about the whims of fashion in the realms of horticulture, art, and commerce.

The French friar and botanist Charles Plumier was the first European to record encountering a fuchsia, in the late 1690s. He did so during a colonial bioprospecting expedition to the West Indies made at the behest of Louis XIV of France. Following custom, Plumier named the “new” species in honor of an accomplished European predecessor: the sixteenth-century German herbalist Leonhard Fuchs. Plumier’s identification and description of the plant along with an engraved illustration were published in Nova plantarum americanarum genera, in 1703. Such images showing a plant’s flower and fruit primarily aided identification.

In the late 1780s, the first fuchsia entered cultivation in Europe; however, specimens were not introduced in great numbers until the 1820s. Many early imports were collected from Meso- and South America, though fuchsias are also native to the Greater Antilles, New Zealand, and islands in the South Pacific. By the 1840s, the plant was cultivated by breeders in England, France, Belgium, and Germany. They used a modern medium—lithography—to publicize their stock.

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