Aculops fuchsiae, better known as fuchsia gall mite, has caused irreparable damage to fuchsias growing on the west coast of the United States, especially California, where the mites thrive in our cool summers and mild winters. This little mite, invisible to the naked eye, has the ability to disfigure an entire bush, and once the plant has been affected, it is nearly impossible to get rid of. For such a tiny creature, they make their presence known.
The mite was introduced from Brazil and was first noticed in northern California in the early 1980s, the mite was likely an accidental introduction. How do you know if you have the mite? If your plants are affected, you will notice leafs, stems and/or the flowers becoming swollen and fused together. New growth is deformed and is covered by small hairs. Aphids can also cause some of these problems, but aphids can easily be seen.
The mites love to travel; after all, they came all the way from Brazil! They easily hitch a ride with birds, hummingbirds are a prime carrier, spread with the wind, but more often, they wait for the faithful gardener to come along. Gardeners can easily spread the mites simply by touching the affected area with their hands or pruners and then moving on to other fuchsias. Typically, the best way to control mites is to remove the plant entirely. On Alcatraz, however, removing historic plants is not an option.
I am not a fan of chemical sprays, but would rather use frequent and consistent applications of Neem oil to control the outbreaks. I also opt for removing affected growths, raking fallen leaves and flowers and keeping plants as healthy as possible with organic fertilizers supplemented with deep waterings during the summer.
We have three kinds of Fuchsia on the island that are afflicted with the mite – Fuchsia ‘Rose of Castile’, Fuchsia magellanica, and Fuchsia ‘Mrs. Lovell Swisher’. The ‘Rose of Castile’ is growing in a few places around the island, with the oldest and best specimen growing on the corner of the Electric Shop bed. This bush is thought to be at least 50 years old! Visitors are always amazed to see the thickness of the trunk and find it hard to believe that a fuchsia, which they usually associate with being a hanging basket flower, could grow into a full sized shrub. In addition to the mite, this fuchsia is also susceptible to rust.
There is another survivor Fuchsia along the main road that visitors walk by. Located right off the dock, this Fuchsia has grown into a small tree over the years. When the Garden Conservancy first scoped out the gardens in 2003, a photo was taken of this poor tree. The plant was holding its own against the mite while being choked by overgrowth. The tree, believed to have Fuchsia magellanica as a parent, looks good for maybe 2 weeks out of the year. Each year, I hope for it to do well, but this year, was not a good year for it. Heartbreakingly, I gave it a hard cutback this past Monday. I anxiously awaited new growth, and thank goodness, the leaf buds are swelling! The bed has been cleaned up underneath and we will begin again.
In choosing plants for the historic gardens, the Garden Conservancy is aiming to give the ‘look and feel’ of the past gardens. We are able to substitute similar plants and can choose disease and insect resistant plants. We have been successfully growing mite resistant fuchsias and now have a small collection on the island. Plants have been sourced from the local SF Botanical Garden and Berkeley Horticulture. We are now growing Fuchsia campo molina, F. thilco, F. paniculata and F. ‘Grand Harfare’. We also have been growing the very profuse bloomer Fuchsia ‘Angel’s Earrings’, but I have noticed that these have been affected with the mite where they are growing near the affected plants. Alcatraz even has one survivor fuchsia that is mite resistant – Fuchsia denticulata.