Eat your fuchsias

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You’ve heard it about nasturtiums. Maybe even gotten used to finding marigolds in your salad. But fuchsias? No way!

Rest assured. All parts of the fuchsia are completely edible, from the berries to the flowers. Even the leaves, for that matter, if you’re into that kind of fodder. This fact is often a complete surprise to most gardeners and growers, even ones that have had fuchsias on the porch or in their beds for decades.

Moreover, it should put the minds of parents and grandparents at ease, when they discover that Junior hasn’t just been impishly popping the flower buds, but merrily popping the berries into his mouth with reckless abandon as well. And dog owners can relax. Fido has been known to nip a few low-hanging fruit from the fuchsia bush a time or two. They’re also non-toxic to canine connoisseurs.

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Fuchsias are perfectly safe to eat. Plus, they’re tasty!

All species and cultivars of the genus Fuchsia produce edible berries The fruit is technically a epigynous berry, similar in its botanical structure to apples or cucumbers, and contains varying numbers of tiny seeds depending on the species. The berries of several natural species are especially relished.

At the top of any list should be Fuchsia boliviana, which is regularly eaten by native peoples in the Andes. In fact, the native range of the species is a little hazy because its berries, at the very least, were early on carried away from their homelands in northern Argentina, Bolivia and southern Peru and into the northern Andes in Columbia and Venezuela. Probably Central American as well.

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F. boliviana is still encountered along old Inca trails and roads, or around habitations, and still sometimes sold in traditional markets in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Native names for this species in the Quechua language of the Inca include quwapaq ñukch'u, chimpu-chimpu and uchu-uchu. In Andean Spanish, they’re referred to as corazón corazón (heart-heart) and are believed to be good for what ails both the heart and spirit.

On the other side of the Pacific, Fuchsia excorticata berries are traditionally eaten by the Maori of New Zealand who call their huge native tree fuchsia, kotukutuku, and the berries themselves, konini. There is an old Maori saying, "I whea koe I te tahuritanga o te rau o te kotukutuku?", or, "Where were you when the leaves of the fuchsia tree began to grow in the spring?”. Kotukutuku is one of Aotearoa’s few deciduous trees and drops its leaves in the fall. This saying is a reproach to those who show up at harvest time to reap help the bounty but were nowhere to be found when real garden work needed to be done at planting time in the spring.

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Fuchsia magellanica, called chilco in Chile and Argentina by the Mapuche, was consumed throughout its natural range by the Mapuche, Puelche, Tehuelche and other native peoples. Still is. I remember with delight an encounter with an elegant, old gentleman in San Carlos de Bariloche while hunting fuchsias is the Patagonian Lake District of Argentina.

Like the roses of England or the thistles of Scotland, F. magellanica seems to have become somewhat of the floral emblem of this beautiful winter-and-summer resort on Nahuel Huapi Lake, a large glacial lake surrounded by the snow-crested Andes. The town’s also come to be known for its Swiss alpine-ish architecture and its chocolate, sold in shops lining its main street, the Calle Mitre. Function follows form, I suppose. Still, F. magellanica abounds.

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I was standing on the lawn of the local Nahuel Huapi headquarters of the national park service, the Dirección General de Parques Nacionales. Among the endemic plants on display in the garden around the building was a beautiful ten-foot high hedge of F. magellanica. The sky was brilliantly azure blue that day. The hedge an achingly intense blaze of scarlet and purple. There was a gentle breeze off the lake. I was trying to get a few shots of the mesmerizing play of flowers against the sky and was apparently quite lost in the task. Finished, I looked up and noticed that I was being watched as well.

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An elderly gentleman, who had obviously been ambling by as I was intent on the hedge, had stopped. I nodded and smiled. When he seemed sure he wasn’t disturbing me, he motioned me over and pointed into the hedge with the end of the silver-topped walking stick on which he’d been leaning. We chatted. Patiently, and somewhat proudly I took it, he shared that this beautiful plant was the chilco and the berries were eaten in the countryside. As if to make sure that his Spanish was getting through to mine, he reached inside, hesitated and plucked an only half-ripe berry. He did caution that they were best and sweetest when dark and fully ripe. He brought it to his lips anyway, popped it inside with a mimed flourish, and ate it with an internationally understandable sound of epircurean satisfaction, “Mmmm… Bueno”. I did manage to sample quite a few chilco berries while ambling though Patagonia myself, thanks to Don Carlos’ kind direction.

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The elongated berries of Fuchsia splendens, looking a bit like little ornamental hanging cucumbers, are also considered tasty by those in the know. Other species notable for their flavor and productivity include F. paniculata, corymbiflora, procumbens and venusta. The delights of various species go on.

The taste of fuchsia berries can be variously described as lemony or peppery and has a pleasing sub-acid quality. The fruit on garden cultivars, however, can range considerably in their degree of delectability. Some are absolutely splendid; other are simply bland. It’s important to remember that most all hybrids were bred for the looks of their ornamental flowers rather than for the taste of the berries.

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This is the reason most people are surprised to learn that they’re perfectly edible. “But it’s a pretty garden flower not a vegetable!” Other common inhabitants of the ornamental garden suffer from this preconception, too. You might have even been surprised that marigolds are edible.

If the berries of one kind of fuchsia don’t measure up, move on to the next. Fuchsia berries are said to be high in Vitamin C and antioxidants. They’re enjoyed fresh or used in recipes such as jellies, jams and puddings.

A common problem with cooking with fuchsia berries is simply collecting enough of them from the typical garden to be useful. Unless you have a hedgerow or somehow providentially manage a fuchsia plantation, the crop can be slow in adding up. Not to fear, you can easily freeze the berries until you’ve collected enough for a pie. That’s if they make it part your mouth in the first place.

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Another trade-off for harvesting fuchsia berries, since they’re primarily grown for their ornamental flowers, is that the young berries on potted plants should normally be removed as soon as the blossoms wither away. This is usually done to encourage the formation of more flowers. Certainly not all growers treat their plants this way nor do all cultivars need to be kept berry-free to perform well either. If you have large shrubs bedded out, or too many plants to bother spending the time, this isn’t an issue since it’s not really practical. Many fuchsias will just keep on blooming, freed of their berries or not. It should also be mentioned to make sure your plants, especially those freshly acquired from large commercial sources, haven’t been treated with any chemicals or systemics that might make them unsafe for eating!

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Fuchsia flowers are edible, as well, and can used as a colorful floral garnish in salads and elsewhere. A recent scientific study have shown that the fuchsia’s flowers are high in anthocyanins, the group of compounds that give these flowers their distinctive fuchsia red, blue and purple colors. Anthocyanins are strong antioxidants and further study needs to be undertaken to determine the precise health benefits eating the flowers might have (See  Scientific Bibliography Rop et al. 2012).

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If you want to try cooking with fuchsia berries, here are a couple of common recipes. The measurements are English but the approximate equivalents have been noted if you’re metric. In the meantime, fresh or cooked, salad or pudding, enjoy!

(Illustrations: 1. Berries ripening on a bush; 2 and 3. Berries of F. boliviana var. alba are pale green when ripe; 4. F. excorticata; 5, 6 and 7. F. magellanica at San Carlos de Bariloche in the Patagonian Lake District of Argentina; 8. F. splendens; 9. Berries in various stages of ripeness on F. paniculata; 7. Fuchsia procumbens; 8. Fuchsia regia; 10. Berries ripening on a bush and ready for the harvest; 11 and 12. Below, F. panicilata.)

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Fuchsia Berry Jelly

1 cup fuchsia flowers [ ≈ 250 ml]
1 cup ripe, washed fuchsia berries
1 cup sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cups of water (or apple juice or apple cider)
1 apple, sweet, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons of unflavored gelatin [ ≈ 30 ml; 1 tbs ≈ 15 ml]

Simmer the flowers, berries, sugar, lemon juice, water, and apple for 10 minutes.
Let the mixture cool a bit, then strain it.
Add the gelatin and allow it to thicken in the refrigerator.

Fuchsia Berry Jam

1 lb. sugar [ ≈ 450 gm]
2 tablespoons water (or apple pectin, apple juice or cider) [ ≈ 30 ml; 1 tbs ≈ 15 ml]
juice of 1 lemon
1 ½ lb. of ripe fuchsia berries, washed [ ≈ 525 gm]

Combine the sugar, water and lemon juice in a pan and cook carefully over low heat until the sugar dissolves.
Set the mix aside and allow it to cool completely.
Add the berries gently, folding them into the mixture so as not to break them up too much.
Bring the mixture slowly to a boil.
Boil until the mixture will set when it’s tested on a plate.
Seal in heated jars.
Allow to cool completely before eating.

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