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Fuchsias, Standards and Ricin

What to do With Fuchsias; and How to Make Standards; Plus the Poison Ricin
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

February 9, 2003


Photos to follow!

Last week on my radio programme two related questions were asked, one right at the end of the programme, for which I thought a lengthier explanation or reply was in order.

The first had to do with how to make a “standard” out of a bushy shrub-like plant. A standard basically being a shrub or perennial (or annual for that matter) which is trained atop of a stem of whatever height is desired. We often see fuchsias and lantana offered for sale on 75 cm (30”) stems or standards.

I’ll go into more detail on the art of training standards after I expand on my brief reply to the second question that concerned what to do with a regular fuchsia plant that’s indoors.

Generally fuchsias are brought in from the garden in mid September, and it’s best to cut them back by at least one-third. What I did with mine in Toronto was to then put them down in a small basement room which we kept as cool as we could (it ran generally at about 10-12 C). For light we had just one two-tube 48-inch fluorescent fixture that went on at about 9 AM and off about 11 PM. About 14 hours per day is a reasonable length of time for lighting such plants.

Down there we kept aging specimens of fuchsia, lantana, Dracaena, Agapanthus, Hibiscus and a tender maple. Some years we had other plants such as the tender New Zealand flax (Phormium) and some tender water plants from our pond.

Plants in such a room do not generally require much watering, although you need to check them every two weeks or so to make sure they are not drying out. When mid February comes, we generally would begin moving these stored tender plants, most of them standards, back upstairs to the greenhouse where they would begin to make new growth as soon as the air was warmer and sunshine began to increase. If you don’t have a greenhouse, a sunny window will suffice.

So, the caller last week who had the nice fuchsia, has likely been growing hers in the living area of her home, and it’s likely got very long growths on it. If this is so, I would suggest she cut all of the long growths back by about half, and soon put the plant into the brightest area she has, and begin fertilizing about every two weeks.

Generally, fuchsias prefer cooler temperatures so indoor temps of 16+ C (60 to 65 F.) are fine. On the other hand, plants such as lantanas prefer much warmer temps if they are to develop well and quickly.

To get back to how to make a standard out of a shrubby plant, it’s always best to choose a small plant that has at least one mostly-upright-growing stem that is strong and healthy. It should be tied to a slim stake of about a length you wish the height of the plant’s standard to be at completion. Remove all of the other major stems regardless of what direction they’re heading; you want the plant to put all of its energy into growing a nice strong standard.

The one item I was able to tell the caller last week was that if there are leaves on the stem that you are training as the standard, do NOT remove them. Unfortunately, she told me she already had.

That is not terrible and does not rule out creating a good standard, but leaving the foliage on the stem, helps supply extra nutrition to the developing stem/standard (in height and girth).

Once the stem/standard has reached the desired height, it’s time to pinch it, which will encourage it to branch out from that point. Often it’s necessary to pinch several times, or cut back the new developing stems in order to get a dense bushy head.

Remember, you can fairly easily make standards out of many bushy shrubs, annuals and herbaceous perennials. The most common tender perennials and shrubs are lantanas, mandevillas (and dipladenias), geraniums, fuchsias, chrysanthemum daisies and even the annual coleus.

If all of this sounds new to you and something you would like to try, it’s not too late to buy a bush fuchsia, lantana, geranium etc. and train it as a standard. You’ll save considerable money over the cost of a standard when planting-out time comes in late May, and you’ll have the fun of doing something different; not to mention the bragging rights to your friends and neighbours!

This week there is just room to make mention of a plant that is very much in the news, although not necessarily by the name we know it. The plant is castor oil bean (Ricinus communis) often sold in garden centres, or grown by home gardeners from seed because it is a fast-growing annual that will achieve a height of well over 1.5 m (5’) by mid-summer. There are usually at least two types available, one with green foliage and reddish flowers and seedpods, and another with maroon/brown foliage, and lighter pink flowers and seedpods. There is also one that bears yellow flowers and on which the new foliage is a rich carmine/maroon colour.

Many garden designers like these plants as background for perennial or other borders, and some gardeners like to plant them to provide an instant screen. They are definitely an architectural element in any garden.

The problem, as you may have guessed, is that the seeds of this plant are the sole source of the deadly poison ricin about which we’ve been hearing much lately. The name of the poison is, of course, taken from the botanical name of the plant.

Actually, the castor oil bean seed contains two different poisons, ricin and RCA. Not to get too technical, the two poisons work in different ways and affect the body differently. Ricin itself, which was found in London England several weeks ago, is so potent that just one milligram can kill an adult.

Suffice to say, both ricin and RCA are deadly. One single seed, if it is chewed, can kill a child if it is ingested. Most poison experts agree that if the seed surface is not broken, it will pass through the intestinal system without any poisoning results.

As a safety provision, poison control centres, and scientists usually recommend that if these plants are grown that the seed heads NOT be allowed to develop. If that is done, of course, one of the significant ornamental features of the plants is lost.

Obviously, gardeners should make up their own mind. The presence of children in the household, and in nearby or visiting households should bear a major influence on that decision.

While they may produce some of the strongest (non-antidote) poisons, castor oil bean plants are certainly not the only poisonous plants that we commonly grow in our gardens. Perhaps the next most publicized are the angel’s trumpet or Datura, often referred to by me in these editorials.

I certainly do not concur with those who would have us cease planting any plant that is at all poisonous. That would include all of the evergreen Japanese yews (poisonous seeds), all tulips (the bulbs are not poisonous), daffodils, gladiolus, Dieffenbachia, foxglove, Boston and English ivies, arrowhead, buckeye, amaryllis, bittersweet, various chrysanthemums, lily-of-the-valley and even mushrooms and mistletoe!

Many of us would have no garden if we were to avoid any plant that has poisonous parts! By the way, seeds for castor oil bean plant are generally available, for example from Thompson & Morgan.

By Art C. Drysdale


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