Plants / Introduction of the Fuchsia / F. coccinea

Fuchsia coccinea

In 1789, when William Aiton published the Hortus Kewensis, only one fuchsia species was in cultivation at Kew. This was not Plumier's triphylla but the Brazilian species Fuchsia coccinea, although it was described by Aiton as a native of Chile introduced by Captain Firth in 1788. Richard Anthony Salisbury FRS (1761-1829) published a description and illustration of F. coccinea in his Stirpes rariores 1791 under the name F. elegans, which he correctly identified as from Brazil. Salisbury said it was introduced to cultivation in Europe by the Italian botanist Domenico Vandelli (1735-1816), who worked in Portugal at the botanical gardens at Coimbra and Lisbon.

It is around this fuchsia that the well-known story was woven of James Lee of the Vineyard Nursery, Hammersmith making three hundred guineas in a season by propagating from a single plant acquired from a sea captain's widow in Wapping. The story was published in 1831 in the Lincoln Herald and attributed to John Shepherd, the first curator of the Liverpool Botanic Garden. It is sometimes suggested that Lee invented this story to cover the fact that he had filched his fuchsia from Kew, but this seems unlikely. Aiton and Lee were friends and close associates and it is unlikely that Aiton would have refused him a cutting or seeds in order to encourage propagation of a new plant. Since little is known about Shepherd before he arrived in Liverpool, it is possible that he was working either at Kew or the Vineyard in 1788 and was recalling a story that he learnt at the time. With the passing of forty years details of an often recounted story tend to become blurred and the amount of money involved exaggerated. The core of the story may well indicate that Lee did acquire seeds or indeed a fuchsia plant from a sea captain and grow it on. He was likely to be mysterious about where exactly it came from, not because he had stolen it from Kew, but because he wanted to avoid his rivals acquiring their own source of a commercially valuable plant. This may also explain why Aiton thought the plant originated from Chile. The fact that Captain Firth has never been identified lends weight to the suspicion that Lee was trying to obscure the details of the plant's origins. Claiming that it was a single specimen collected by a now defunct sea captain who, according to Shepherd's account, sailed to the West Indies rather than either Chile or Brazil, was a good way to confuse Lee's competitors.

The herbarium specimens made of the Kew plant at the time confirm that it was indeed Fuchsia coccinea. However, the attribution of the plant's origin seems subsequently to have helped to create confusion with F. magellanica, which was from Chile. By 1867 F. coccinea itself had been practically lost to cultivation in England, but a plant was preserved at the Oxford Botanic Gardens. Joseph Hooker, the Director of Kew Gardens, compared this plant with the herbarium specimens of the original introduction and the printed descriptions and illustrations. This enabled him to disentangle the history of the two plants in cultivation. F. coccinea was then illustrated and described in Curtis's Botanical Magazine (plate 5740).