Plant Profiles: Phygelius
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Upright subshrub or perennial; to 5 feet
Sun to part shade; well-drained soil; drought tolerant
So much rhythm, color and pleasure here, you must grow this plant!
Humans have done the natural world no favors when it comes to naming new varieties of plants. We've got enough 'Elf', 'Pixie', 'Baby', and 'Sweet Something' cultivars to saccharinize manure tea. The American nursery industry is convinced that unless a plant's name is 'Adorable', nobody's going to take it home. But who wants a plant purported to be innocuous, insubstantial and dull?
So it's all the more delightful that an exhibitionist like Phygelius has managed to escape this nomenclatural drek. The genus is blessed with appropriately evocative cultivar names that actually say something about the plant. 'Devil's Tears' has got to be red and pack a wallop; 'Salmon Leap' -- what else but spirited and bright? 'African Queen' -- exquisite and unapologetic. 'Tommy Knockers' -- who knows, but it's definitely not cute.
Phygelius, or Cape fuchsia, is native to South Africa, a vast source of fabulous and temperate plants. Its name is thought to be from the Greek phyge as in "flight" or "avoidance," "in consequence of its having so long escaped the researches of botanists." That's according to the English botanist W. J. Hooker, who might have been kidding. (Then again, do botanists kid about this stuff?)
Perhaps not as funny, but even more preposterous, is how long blooming this plant is: figure late spring sporadically through November. Though there are subtle differences among cultivars, typically the individual flowers are two inches long, shaped like dangling tubular trumpets with slightly flared mouths (a veritable one-stop shop for hummers). They grow in 8- to 10-inch clusters at the top of upright flowering stems, which, once spent, can be cut back to 6 inches above the ground.
A compact, bushy, 3- to 5-foot semi-evergreen plant with shiny leaves, phygelius will multiply in width by sending out suckers. You can either yank them out or just let the beast go. The genus falls into that funny category, shrubs -- as do Caryopteris (bluebeard shrub) and hardy fuchsia -- a clue to gardeners that during a particularly cold winter, the plant's stems may die back to the ground. Not to worry, it's hardy to O°F and evergreen to 20°F, but a warm spot with good drainage couldn't hurt.
The only drawback I can think of to phygelius is having to choose a cultivar. Lack of availability narrows down the choice only a little, since most are enough to get your hands on and none could be described as rare. If I had to find a flaw, it would be with the lovely dwarf variety with dusty-coral tubes and a striped yellow throat. Better look away sheepishly when you ask for it by name: 'Pink Elf.'
Phygelius x rectus cultivars:
'African Queen': Crimson tubes, orange/red inside edges
'Devil's Tears': Dark red in bud, glowing red tubes, orange/red edges
'Moonraker': Pale yellow tubes, deeper yellow lobes
'Pink Elf': Dusty coral tubes, red lobes, 2 feet
'Salmon Leap': Pale salmon/orange tubes held at 45-degree angles
'Sensation': New kid on block, dusty magenta
'Sunshine': Another new kid, first one with lime foliage
'Winchester Fanfare': Dusky red/pink, very straight tubes, scarlet lobes
P. aequalis 'Yellow Trumpet': Bushiest habit of the Cape fuchsias; pale yellow tubes
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Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine
Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.