In the Garden: Old Fashioned Becomes New! Improved!

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By Charles Kidder

I stand in my garden contemplating a shrub that I put in the ground a year and a half ago.  It’s looking very happy, about three feet wide and 18 inches high…except for some odd sprouts that poke up and double the overall height. Such is gardening with abelias.

An old-fashioned shrub that your grandma might have planted near her front porch, abelias have recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Exciting new colors and more compact size have lured gardeners seeking alternatives to green meatballs.

Abelias are one of those convenient genera with the same scientific and common names, and a pronounceable one to boot. They are members of the Caprifoliaceae family, relatives of the honeysuckles and weigelas. The thirty-odd species of abelias hail primarily from eastern Asia, with a few native to Mexico. Shrubs that range from 3 to 20 feet tall, abelias may be deciduous, semi-evergreen or totally evergreen, depending on the variety and climate.

Abelia chinensis could be considered the granddaddy/grandma of the abelias commonly grown in the eastern U.S. A shrub that reaches about six feet by six feet, it is probably the most fragrant of the abelias. Butterfly-attracting flowers appear from late spring until frost in such great abundance that the branches appear to weep. A possible downside to chinese abelia: deciduous foliage, in an era when folks worship at the altar of the evergreen plant.  Notwithstanding, it has been bred extensively, yielding the very popular Abelia xgrandiflora, or glossy abelia.

Compared to its parent Chinese abelia, glossy abelia has the advantage of being evergreen or nearly so. Average ultimate size is listed as being about 6’ by 6’, but a whopper of a plant has been reported as being 18’ by 20’ at seventy years old. Like most of this genus, glossy abelia has a delicate, twiggy appearance. Inch-long leaves are indeed a glossy green and turn burgundy or russet in the fall and winter. Flowers are about ¾” long, slightly fragrant and can bloom from June into November. When the actual flower has fallen, the rosy-colored sepals underneath persist for months and provide additional color. All in all, a worthy shrub, but it might be hard to find the “regular” glossy abelia anymore.

Dozens of cultivars have come along in the past couple of decades featuring variegated foliage and reduced size. A caveat: many are particularly seductive sitting in the container at the garden center, but may have “issues” after they’ve been in your garden for a while.  Foremost among these is the tendency to send up vigorous shoots that give the plant an odd two-tiered appearance. If these shoots have solid green leaves instead of the variegated ones on the main plant, they must be pruned out or most of the plant will eventually end up green. If they retain the color you originally bought, it’s your call on pruning them. In addition to the tendency to throw up odd shoots, some of the newer cultivars are not totally evergreen.

I currently have two known abelia cultivars in my garden, as well as another whose tag has gone temporarily missing. Among the known plants is ‘Kaleidoscope’, now about two feet across and 18” high.  As of this moment, no wild shoots have appeared, but probably it’s too soon to tell. The foliage has a green center, with a bright yellow/gold edge.  In cold weather, the plant becomes even more colorful with the green portion turning rose-red. I’ve seen these planted in a mass in full sun, and to my taste they’re almost too bright on a sunny day.  Ours is in partial afternoon shade where it can light up a dark corner.  Showing very good heat tolerance, this is a good selection for the South.

Our other abelia with a known identity is ‘Radiance’, with dark green leaf centers surrounded by cream or yellow borders. It’s similar to ‘Kaleidoscope’, but much more subtle. Of our four ‘Radiance’ plants, two have put out some longer pokey-up shoots, and I just pruned one. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few months. Both ‘Radiance’ and ‘Kaleidoscope’ are one of several dwarf (or compact) abelias that have come to market in the last few years, and apparently some are not entirely comfortable with that size classification.

Our “mystery” abelia is probably ‘Rose Creek’, yet another allegedly compact plant, sporting distinctive pink-white flowers. Ours is already throwing up long wild shoots, but these long vertical stems are also putting out side branches, so the plants may look somewhat less gangly in a few weeks. Supposedly maturing at 3’-4’ by 3’-4’, woody plant expert Michael Dirr reported that one six-year old plant was already 5’ by 6’.  Thus far, I have not pruned any of these three plants.

And what about pruning abelias? Since they flower on new wood of the current season, they can be pruned early in the spring and will still flower that year.  If you have an abelia that has gotten out of hand, you can rejuvenate it by cutting it back almost to the ground in spring.  Abelias can also be tightly “meatballed” or even pruned as a hedge, but this will then put you on a maintenance treadmill.

Abelias are not particular regarding growing conditions. Acid, well-drained moist soil is best, but they will tolerate drought once established. Full sun to partial shade is ideal. They will grow in total shade, but will be less dense and have fewer flowers.

The old-fashioned abelias still do have their place in the landscape, and the new improved ones offer some exciting alternatives. With the latter, just temper your enthusiasm and be prepared for some surprises. And stay tuned for a pruning update in the fall.

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