Friday 23 February 2018

Abutilon defies chill winds to shine in sun

Gerry Daly

FLOWERING now, the abutilon is one of the most beautiful garden shrubs.

It is so delicately pretty that it seems improbable that it has come through such a miserably cold spring. But there it is, in all its glory, its broad flowers open to the sunshine and defying the chill winds.

A tall, rather open shrub, the abutilon is usually covered over its top half at least with large, open, cupped, pale blue-purple flowers.

The first flowers can appear quite early in spring in a mild year, tricked by a few warm days into opening before the normal time in May and June. The flower's buds wait all winter to open, plainly visible on the bare stems.

The leaves are slow to fall in autumn and a scatter of them can hang on well into winter. The stems are upright and felty with buff-greyish hairs, which help to protect from cold.

This plant, Abutilon vitifolium, is native to Chile and, like a lot of plants from that country, not completely hardy, but it can be grown outdoors in most parts of the country, though not in the colder areas well inland from the coast.

The second part of the name means the leaves are shaped like those of a grapevine, having three pointed lobes.

The foliage is soft and felty and the colour is soft green too, a perfect backdrop for the light colour of the flowers.

Most plants have pale lavender flowers but occasionally a darker form appears or a completely white form. 'Victoria Tennant' is pale pink-mauve.

The white form is very pretty and reminiscent of the flowering mallows, to which abutilon is related. But the white can be a bit weak in gardens and the pale lavender colour is the most effective.

The plant is easily raised from seeds, and the seedlings can be blue or white. Blue plants can give white-flowered seedlings and vice versa.

The mature abutilon plant often produces a few seedlings close by, and this is welcome because the parent is rarely long-lived.

Plants may live 10 years or so but the taller they get, often reaching four metres or so, the more likely they are to die off. This usually happens after the bush or small tree has been rocked by strong winds.

The wood is not strong and it breaks easily, including the roots. When a couple of roots break, the tree usually dies off within a year or so, even if well staked.

Look out for it in flower and buy a plant if you get a chance!

Irish Independent

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