Fuchsia - Breeding from seeds

Breeding Fuchsias: Part 1: From seed

Jack Wilson has successfully bred fuchsias for a number of years. Here he describes his techniques:

The fuchsia has been in cultivation in Britain for roughly 200 years. The first authentic drawing of it was published in 1725 by R.P.L. Feuville in Journal des Observations Botaniques, vol. 111 pi. 47 under the name 'Thiles' which is the native name for the plant in Southern Chile. The actual date of the introduction into Europe of living plants is given as being between 1786-9 when F. magellanica and F. coccinea were being grown. From this date the introduction of other species, doubtless by seed, continued, estimated dates are FF. lycoides 1796, arborescens 1824, microphylla 1827, fulgens 1830, corymbiflora 1840. From then on more species seed became available and hybridisation started in earnest. Records show that in 1838 Galley of Leeming Bar, Yorkshire, crossed F. fulgens with F. grandiflora and Normald of Ripon, Yorkshire, raised 'Normaldii' which was an arborescens x reflexa cross. In 1841 the number of hybridists increased and many new varieties became available.

The species which probably played the greatest part in the development of fuchsias as we know them today are F. coccinea, F. fulgens and F. magellanica. F. coccinea has scarlet tube and sepals with a purple corolla, the sepals are not re-flexed, and the flowers are small. F. fulgens has orange tube and sepals, the sepals having pale green tip, and a bright orange corolla. The tube is very long up to 2¾ inches (7cm). There are three varieties of this fuchsia which are often sold as F. gesnariana. F. magellanica has a scarlet tube and sepals and the corolla is purple. The sepals are held horizontally. This is the hardy fuchsia seen in many gardens.

The genus fuchsia has continued to be extensively hybridised and today we have, it is said, over 3600 varieties. This is as it should be, as the fuchsia is a first class garden plant. It has many qualities: a long flowering period, it is easily trained, has very few garden enemies and many colour combinations, which are set off in some varieties by variegated golden and purple coloured foliage. In spite of its easy nature it is a plant which is rarely grown from seed. I often wonder why this is because, if you take the usual care over sowing and growing, many variations in leaf, colour of flower and habit can be obtained.

As an amateur fuchsia hybridist, I usually obtain good results from seed, but of course the resulting plants can be very varied. It is rare however to have plants that are of no garden value and with luck, there are sometimes some real beauties. I always think that when the seedling plants come into flower - and they usually do the first year - it is like having Christmas every day! It is difficult to wait for the flower to fully develop and open, and sometimes the temptation is too great and one is opened just to have a look. But this is not a good idea as the flower will not then develop naturally.

I select the plants to be crossed during the winter and carry out the cross-pollination in the early summer, I do this usually in the greenhouse. Once the pollination has been done I let the seed pods develop until they are fully ripe, either pale green or deep purple with some intermediate colours. As the fruits ripen they are a target for the birds - if outside - which seem to find them delicious, so it is essential, after pollination, to enclose them in a muslin bag. To ensure good germination the fruits must be fully ripened on the plant, the muslin bag protects them if they fall. The seeds are extracted from the fruit by cutting each segment through the centre using a sharp knife and scraping them out with the blade. They are then placed on to a piece of absorbent kitchen paper to dry. Each cross is cleaned separately and the paper is then marked with the cross which was made. The whole operation is messy as the fruit pulp is very sticky. The paper-wrapped seeds are then left in a warm room to dry out, this usually takes about seven days. As I usually sow the seeds in late spring, March/April, I store the dried seeds in air tight containers to await sowing. The air tight containers are stored during the winter in a dry cupboard.

I sow the fuchsia seeds in the greenhouse in March/April at a minimum temperature 65°F (18°C). I use John Innes Seed Compost and to this I add a little Perlite to ensure an open porous mixture. The seeds from each cross are sown separately in small square plastic pots - these fit into the propagator case more easily than round ones. I always use about ½ inch (12mm) of well rotted leaf mould in the base of each pot and then fill each one with the seed compost to within ½ inch (12mm) of the rim. The compost is now lightly firmed with my fingers, and levelled off with the base of another pot. I then cover the surface of the compost with 1/8 inch (3mm) of sharp sand. The seeds are sown thinly over the surface of the sand and pressed firmly into the surface using a flat piece of wood. To obtain good germination the seeds must not be completely covered as some light is required to initiate germination. The pots are then soaked in water and allowed to drain. After draining the pots are put into a propagator. I sometimes place them in a seed tray and cover with a sheet of glass. Whichever method is used the propagator lid or the sheet of glass is covered with newspaper to exclude some of the light.

After sowing, the lid or the glass is taken off every morning and the condensation wiped off until germination takes place. Germination is very variable and can take from 14 to 120 days, but the average time is 30 days; more rapid germination can be obtained by soaking the seeds in water for two days. When the seed leaves can be seen they are dusted with a fungicide to combat 'damping off. The compost is kept moist at all times but not sodden, the water being given from the base to avoid disturbing the seeds. The development of the first true leaves is the signal for the next stage of growing.

The seedlings are pricked out when the first true leaves appear. This occurs in a very random way and it is necessary to judge the time when the majority of the seedlings can be handled. Before handling the seedlings, I let the compost dry out a little as it makes it easier to untangle the roots. I prick out the seedlings by setting four around the rim of a 2½ inch (6.5cm) pot, using John Innes No. 2 compost with an addition of Perlite. I find this method gives better results than pricking out singly into small pots and then potting on into the larger size pots. Great care in handling is required during the initial pricking out. Do not pick up by the stems, always gently lift by the leaves. The pots are now plunged into a compost filled seed tray and the compost is kept moist. This initial pricking out is the key to successful growing on of the seedlings, they must be large enough to handle, and handled very carefully as it is very easy to crush the stems. This leads inevitably to die back and usually damping off. When the seedlings are well established, they are potted on into 2½ inch or 3 inch (6.5 to 7.5cm) using John Innes No. 2 compost. When the pots are almost full of roots, pot on again into large pots using John Innes No. 3 compost. I usually train them up into a pillar shape as these take up less room in the greenhouse. Many of the plants will flower in the first year but in general they will flower to show their true potential in the second year. This entails over-wintering in a frost proof greenhouse or shed.

Summing up:

  1. Seeds must not be covered, merely pressed into the sand.
  2. Do not over water.
  3. Take action against damping off.
  4. Take great care when pricking out, handle only by the leaves.
  5. Do not discard any seedlings until their habit and flower type is seen.
  6. Seedlings that flower the first year are in most cases, the ones which will be good ones. However, all should be flowered, to enable an assessment to the made.
  7. Keep records of the crosses made. I find I am too lax on this point, which I afterwards regret.
  8. If there are some good seedlings always obtain a second opinion, as I find that you cannot be unbiased about your own seedlings, in fact, all my geese are swans!
  9. Always use good quality compost.

In the second part of his article Jack Wilson looks at the hybridisation programme.

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