Of pencils and plants

Despite that freak snowstorm that really walloped the Northeast corner of the United States a few days before Halloween this year, it’s actually been a long, slow slide into the cold weather of winter. In fact, it was only on December 18 that a 26° F (-3.3° C) low finally penetrated Hortulus Fuchsiarum deeply enough to firmly end the growing season. (Central Park was 22° F that night so you can see this garden is a bit more sheltered.) This is certainly a couple of weeks later than I would have usually expected the inevitable. My potted fuchsias had been brought under cover and I’d mounded protective “pine straw” duvets over the ones the ground. Many fuchsias can withstand a few degrees of frost but that full-on freeze really scorched the exposed leaves.
Even then some shoots and leaves actually made it through the plunge to 26° F with just a wisp of damage visible. No big surprise there as I can usually expect the hardy Fuchsia magellanica cultivars, such as ‘Cape Horn,’ ‘Grandma’s’ or ‘Riccartonii,’ not to give up so easily. They’re native to an area in southern Chile and Argentina that stretches roughly across the spine of the Andes from northern Patagonia down to the Tierra del Fuego and they’re used to standing up to cold, raw conditions. If the tops get taken down, they’ll simply sprout up again from underground.
What always amazes me more—though I’m not sure why after growing them outside for ten years—is just how tough F. hatschbachii and F. regia also are. The amazement stems from the fact that they’re both from Brazil, I guess. Of course, it gets cold in the high campos del altitude atop the mountains of southeast Brazil to which they’re native. But it’s still Brazil. I mean, that’s the country of the legendary warm, sandy beaches of Rio de Janiero! Of the tropical Amazon Rainforest, the world’s largest! These Brazilians are tougher than tough, though.
Wandering around the garden a few days after the plunge, cleaning up this and straightening out that, I noticed that the leaves on the F. regia were withered, but the branches were still green and undamaged under the bark. A little flick with the thumbnail confirmed it, Go figure that. I’d been wanting to establish another plant or two so… Carpe occasionem! I thought I’d try some late-season stem cuttings before the really cold weather hits and kills them back altogether. Brrr.
Fuchsias root insanely easily from soft green shoots, or hardwood cuttings taken late in the season after the wood has matured. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that they can also be rooted from what are essentially just sticks devoid of any leaves. And from growth that’s a few years old even. In fact, this method is often an easier and wiser way of transporting fuchsias when fresh cuttings or potted plants are inconvenient or impossible. It also lessens the risks of insects, diseases or other possible pathogens hitching a ride on growth or in potting soil. Especially when they’re treated with a few other preventative measures.
Fuchsia regia is a scrambling bush or often a liana that climbs up and over and through other plants in its native habitat. Over the season, I’d trained the long branches of mine up several stakes to keep it more upright in the small garden. By the end of the season, the plant was about six feet tall (180 cm). I cut the several branches back but left a couple of feet (60 cm). Fuchsias shouldn’t be cut back all the way down until the spring as leaving the tops actually helps buffer the plant from penetrating cold through the winter. The several branches cut from the plant will certainly supply more than enough good rooting material. I removed the smaller side branches and any little twigs or old leaves to reduce them to what were now little more than long, straight sticks.

Next, the long branches were cut into much shorter pieces, with two or three nodes left on each, about the length of a pencil or so. So much like a pencil, in fact, that these kinds of hardwood cuttings of fuchsias are sometimes referred to as pencils. I left one node close to the bottom of each one. Fuchsias seem to root from almost anywhere but they root best from their nodes. I can remember how surprised I was once when I noticed that a few roots had even formed along a leaf stalk that had fallen to the top of the potting soil. Of course, there was no dormant bud on the little sprite so the rooted leaf was doomed. But, hey, it was trying.


The pencils were stuck into a deep pot filled with good rooting compost, with that bottom node pushed in close to the bottom of the pot. Some people like to dip the ends in rooting powder with a fungicide. Like I said fuchsias root so easily that I don’t usually bother. But, heck, it you like it, do it. Any good rooting medium will usually do. Sharp sand. Vemiculite. Perlite. Some seed starting mix. Your choice. Just make sure it’s one that will hold enough moisture next to the stems, but still drain well. You don’t want the pencils to rot while waiting to put out roots. Generally, I’ll root directly into a gentle growing medium in a small pot. I don’t usually want to have repot the rooted cuttings. Or divide them, damaging the new roots and setting the new plants back. I’ll just pot them up and keep them growing. You could also call all it a labor saving step, if you want.

To help keep the environment humid around the pencils as they strike, a zip-lock gallon plastic bag was pulled over the top. I closed it off at the bottom with a rubber band. One bit of advice is to keep the bag itself off the cuttings. If it’s not thick enough to stand up fairly straight on its own, you should support it away from the cuttings with stakes of some sort. This is especially important if your propagating material has leaves. The constant moisture directly on the cutting in this close environment can cause problems. For example, leaves adhering to the plastic might start to decay and pass that decay onto the stems. The cutting might then collapse and fail. Best to keep a layer of air around the sticks.

Finally I set the bagged pot under the lights in my winter "greenhouse." It’s warmer there so the pencils should root and then send out new shoots fairly fast. Or maybe it’s send out shoots and then root? Whichever it is, they’ll root more slowly in a cooler spot. But not too cool, or they’ll just sit there and rot before roots can develop enough to get them up and growing. If you’re not rooting under lights as I am, perhaps in a greenhouse or on a windowsill, make sure to set the bagged pot in a bright spot but out of the direct sun; you’ll want to avoid overheating and cooking the poor things.
I’ll take stock of the cuttings’ progress early next year.
See you then!