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heart and soil

For Four Single-Minded Collectors, a First Encounter With a Plant Blossomed Into a Lifelong Love Affair

May 21, 2000|Dave Gardetta

Ida Drapkin is one of those rare people who spot a particular flower or cactus or fern or tree or succulent in the right light on the right day, lose their heart to it and then devote the rest of their life to winning it back, in the meantime paying a lot for potting soil. For Drapkin, it was a small fuchsia named Swingtime, which she spotted by chance on a breezy Palos Verdes day in 1970. It was the first fuchsia she had ever seen--a flounce of red sepals blown upward, the white corolla below emerging like a popcorn bud, its delicate stigma flitting in the wind--and today all she can say about that moment is, "Something about it just hit me."

The Drapkins had recently retired to Palos Verdes, yet as an Army wife, Ida had already grown all types of plants in all sorts of places. She grew mangoes and bananas in Hawaii, and daffodils and tulips in Germany, and cucumbers and tomatoes in Niagara Falls when chicken manure could still be had at 25 cents a bushel. In desolate El Paso, she says, she grew sand.

But after Swingtime, she became something of a fundamentalist, and the Word was fuchsia. The flower stepped into her life and became her obsession, and soon enough she was crossbreeding her own hybrids, occasionally naming them after family members. One flower's resemblance to her sister's beautiful alabaster skin prompted the moniker Ceil, for Celia. Sid Drapkin, named for Ida's husband, has a salmon complexion and a mild infestation of mites caught after hanging out for months in the couple's Palos Verdes backyard. She is not, however, particular to kin. Dr. David Chan, which has a peachy complexion with flecks of orange and red, is named for her favorite oncologist.

It may be unfair to say that the fuchsia is your mother's plant, something spotted outside a Palm Springs retirement condo in a terra-cotta pot, but there is an aura about the flowering bush's glossy leaves and dangling, toy-like blossoms that speaks of, say, the "I Like Ike" era. If the 20th century can be divided into horticultural epochs, fuchsias would have ruled the earth when ivy hedges and Bermuda grass and Hawaiian luaus dominated the primordial backyard. They are, in fact, much older. The first written description of the plant appeared in 1703, when Father Charles Plumier described the Fuchsia triphylla flore coccineo in what is today the Dominican Republic and named it "fuchsia." In Antarctica, Drapkin says, core drilling has unearthed fossilized fuchsia pollen that is about 35 million years old.

Fuchsias are particular to the Western Hemisphere and the Americas, but they are not exclusive; in New Zealand there exists a 45-foot fuchsia tree. Most are much smaller and infinitely more varied. Drapkin herself has written that fuchsias can be grown as "shrubs, bushes, trees, baskets, half-baskets, wall pockets, espaliers, cordons, cones, pyramids, rings, topiaries, window boxes and even ground cover." The list overlooked fuchsia soup, the professional woman wrestler Fuchsia and a Methodist sister ministering in Tennessee, one Fuchsia Pickett.

One would think a plant of such versatility must boast legions of species, but there are actually only about 100. In fact, there are more than 12,000 fuchsia hybrids and cultivars. Their numbers make Ida dizzy and her mind reel. "It's getting harder and harder to know the fuchsias," she says, "because their names are getting harder to pronounce." This year alone has seen the hybridization of Hertogin van Brabant, De Acht Zaligheden, Frau Vreni Fluckiger and Ector's Loze Vissertje.

It happens that Ida is partial to the Americans: Cindy Robyn ("she's got a peachy color"), Texas Longhorn ("a huge wingspan") and Archie Owens ("a beautiful pink"). Cindy and Archie and the Texan were all bred by Annabelle Stubbs, whom Ida describes as "the best there was--that is, until she entered a home this year."

This is a problem: The fuchsia enthusiasts are aging. Ida herself is 78 and spending a lot more time than she'd like to with the human David Chan. "Flowers have a moment in time, and that has happened with the fuchsia," she says. Like an aging teen idol, the flower's fan base is dissipating; where once there were almost two dozen fuchsia enthusiast clubs in Southern California, today there are just three. Even Ida has taken on help for her backyard collection, but the truth is, there are probably more fuchsia-adorned tea cups and fuchsia needlepoint canvases in her house than buds in her garden. "But I have a memory," she says. "I can still remember what I saw in 1970, and when they ask where my husband is, I still say he's in the backyard, hanging out." *

By their own evaluation, horticulturists Don and David Harris look like a pair of desert rats. In addition to their shared resemblance, the twins also work together, live together, vacation together, obsess over agaves together and finish each other's sentences, as in the following exchange:

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