Tuesday 12 December 2017

Gardening: Willing and able to give us masses of flowers

In fashion: the abelia can grow up to three metres high
In fashion: the abelia can grow up to three metres high

Gerry Daly

Shrubs are becoming fashionable again, and among those leading the charge is abelia. That is its botanical name and also its common name. It may have had a local name in its native China but that has not travelled with it. In any case, abelia is quite a good name and even sounds musical. The name was given to the plant in honour of an English botanist by the name of Abel, who visited China in the early nineteenth century. A couple of species were crossed to give the hybrid abelia that is mostly grown in gardens.

Abelia is related to honeysuckle but it has much wider, shorter, trumpet-like flowers in loose clusters. The flowers are pale pink, opening from red buds, and it flowers from mid-summer well into late autumn when a few flowers can still be found. The flowers are fragrant, like so many other members of the honeysuckle family, and carried in little groups of three or four. At the peak of flowering in summer, the bush is covered all over with a froth of flowers. Much of the growth is arching with the flowers dotted along the stems, a lively and very pretty look.

As the flowers fade and drop off the twigs, the calyx just behind the flower turns red. This is almost as good as the flowers. Although smaller, the calyx is divided into three, four or five lobes and these lobes look like narrow petals. Their red-bronze colour sets off the pale pink flowers. The calyces do not wither for many months, even late into winter, still decorative against the glossy evergreen foliage. Abelia is a filler shrub, not a star in its own right but a good accompanying backdrop. It looks great with some large flowers nearby, such as roses or lilies, its frothiness setting them off, and the large flowers lending ballast to the lightness of the abelia.

Abelia can reach three metres, which is a bit large for most gardens. But there is a more compact form called 'Edward Goucher' that grows to only half that size. There is also one called 'Francis Mason', if you like variegated plants.

Because abelia is a bushy shrub with lots of shoots from ground level, it is a good candidate for pruning, taking out some older shoots after flowering. Although most species of abelia originated in China, there is a very pretty species from Mexico, known as Mexican abelia. It is even more arching, with drooping strings of purple-pink tubular flowers. It is usually grown as a wall shrub because it is a bit tender. Plant in good soil now.

Sunday Independent

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