This crop was mentioned in last year’s Pack Trials coverage, and since then, we have done some work on its production. The genus phygelius is a wonderful group of somewhat fuchsia-like plants that come from South Africa and belong to the Scrophulariaceae family, making it a snapdragon relative. This genus has two species, Phygelius capensis and Phygelius aequalis. The main difference between the two species has to do with the architecture of the inflorescence. P. capensis has flowers that are evenly spaced around the stem; whereas P. aequalis has flowers hanging to one side. There are about 15 cultivars of the two species commercially available, many of which are interspecific hybrids.
These plants may not be familiar to most of us because the breeding has been done in England, where they have gained in popularity. Don’t be surprised, though, if phygelius soon becomes as common in the United States as Guinness Stout. Maybe we shouldn’t go that far, but with the development of a variety of colors, this plant has great potential in U.S. markets.
The fantastic thing about phygelius is its versatility. It is commonly used in mixed borders, where it can reach a height of 4 feet, but it also looks great in a hanging basket. In fact, the perfect height for really appreciating this plant is eye level, where the colorful throat of its drooping, trumpet-shaped flowers can clearly be seen and appreciated.
Phygelius tend to flower in flushes, and after each flush, plants can be cut back for another burst of color. The unusual flower shape and repeat blooming make it a great component in mixed containers. Additionally, the chartreuse foliage on some varieties such as phygelius ‘Sunshine’ will also provide dramatic contrast in a mixed container.
Phygelius are surprisingly tough, considering they come from a Mediterranean climate. The June 2004 issue of GPN includes an article by Art Cameron of Michigan State University discussing the possibilities for phygelius in the extreme North. According to Cameron, phygelius in their gardens have even survived a few Michigan winters, surprising for a plant that can also thrive in Florida.
When the “dog days” of summer hit the South, phygelius is one of those rare plants that can be “over-summered.” It will tend to get lanky as the summer progresses but can be cut back to keep it in shape for a great fall display. In general, we are finding that cultivars of P. x rectus seem to exhibit better heat and sun tolerance than P. aequalis. As our breeding program gets a bit farther along we’ll be able to make some recommendations on P. capensis as well. But for now, the more balanced flower racemes of P. capensis and P. rectus genetics seem most promising, as they can withstand rainfall, and the smaller leaves are less likely to scorch in full sun. Either group of phygelius are excellent in baskets, but the P. x rectus types are more upright in a basket, while P. aequalis leans outward for better basket presentation.
To produce this crop you really do not have to prepare for any special requirements; it should fit nicely into a regular production schedule. That is one of the beauties of this crop — it is so easy to grow. If growth regulation is needed, we have found that a drench of paclobutrazol is effective for height control. If the plant flowers out in an early flush and begins to look rough, simply shear it back, and it returns to flower in 3-5 weeks, depending on environmental conditions.
For those of us in the Deep South, where fuchsia has a typical life span of 5-7 days, phygelius are proving to be a much more heat-tolerant and vigorous alternative. They don’t have near the color range or flower dynamics (size and complexity of bloom) of a fuchsia, but produced as a basket they can create the same effect as single fuchsia with a lot less work. When the heat and humidity puts an end to those fuchsia flowers, the cape fuchsia can take over.
Commonly known as cape fuschia, phygelius could provide some interesting possibilities for extending the fuchsia season.