I don’t know if it’s the same in the rest of the country, but here in the south-west the fuchsia is one of the most popular garden shrubs. It’s not just in gardens that it appears; the narrow country lanes of Devon and Cornwall are frequently lined with hardy fuchsia hedges.
In our own garden we have just such a hedge of fuchsia magellanica. Through the late summer and autumn it provides a stunning 8-feet tall red wall.
The garden shrubs are equally effective. The flowers of the different varieties vary enormously from the extraordinarily delicate, tiny, ballerina-like, to the big and blowsy that look like overly-made-up pantomime dames.
Apart from the beautiful blooms and the very long flowering season, there are a lot of other reasons for fuchsias being so popular: there’s a good range of fully hardy varieties; many are shade tolerant; they come in every size from tiny dwarf and trailing for baskets/containers to large shrubs for the back of borders; they are disease resistant. Apart from the hedge, we had twelve fuchsias in the garden.
I say ‘had’ because today I dug up four plants and burned them. I’m afraid that the others will have to follow shortly.
The reason is that I discovered incidence of fuchsia gall mite – a microscopic pest that attacks only fuchsias and is spread between plants on the wind, or by insects and birds.
This pest was unknown outside of South America until the 1980s when it was found in California. It was officially first identified in Europe in December 2003 when it was found on plants in Brittany. It is now generally believed that the pest was introduced in 2001/2002
by a collector in the Channel Islands illegally importing cuttings from South America. It was found on the south coast of England in 2007. It has spread rapidly along the coast and inland so that it is already found at many sites south of a line from Bristol to London.
Until recently, all infestations had to be reported to DEFRA, but it has spread so quickly that that is no longer a requirement for private gardeners, although it still applies to commercial growers.
So, why is this tiny pest so important? Its effect on plants is devastating; it spreads quickly (one female mite can produce a population of 125,000 in two summer months); it is highly resistant to pesticides and by the time symptoms can be detected, it’s too late.
The first sign of an infestation is when leaves and flowers on fresh growth fail to grow normally and become grossly deformed or ‘galled’. It looks like an extreme case of leaf curl, so severe that all new growth is suppressed. Because the mites burrow deep into the plant tissue, spraying the outside is ineffective – at least for pesticides available to amateur gardeners.
Once a plant is infected it is very unlikely that it can be saved. If it is a mature shrub with a hardwood structure, one could try cutting off (and burning) all green growth, hoping that all mites have been removed and that new growth will be clear, but if other plants in the neighbourhood are infected, re-infection is almost inevitable.
I’m keeping a close eye on my remaining plants, hoping that by some miracle they prove resistant, but feeling resigned to losing them. Those plants/shrubs are one thing, but the hedge is infected and solving that isn’t going to be easy.
I wonder how that fuchsia enthusiast in the Channel Islands is feeling.