Abelia, a genus from the Caprifoliaceae family, is indigenous to Asia and their name honors Clarke Abel, a naturalist, and surgeon, who visited China in 1816. However, when he was voyaging home, all the samples of seeds and plants that he collected were lost when his ship was attacked by pirates and wrecked. Luckily, he had left a few samples with Sir George Staunton in Canton, who returned them later to him. However, it was Robert Fortune who brought back to England the first living specimens of Abelia chinensis or Chinese Abelia in 1844.
This evergreen and deciduous genus of 30 species produce colorful foliage and have a long blooming period from spring to autumn. These plants grow about 2 – 8 feet wide and 2 – 10 feet high with oval-shaped leaves that are often green or yellow with orange, pink, burgundy, or bronze details. Some are variegated and/or multi-colored and often change color with the seasons. Their blooms attract butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, and many other pollinators. The fruit is very small.
These plants can grow in full sun and as well as partial shade. However, growing them under full sun encourages more vibrant leaf colors and healthy blooms. Plants grown in places of intense summer heat will profit from some shade in the afternoons.
These plants are low-maintenance and drought tolerant when established. However, they grow better with regular watering, particularly during the hot months of summer, when they should be watered 1 or 2 times weekly to keep them healthy. Let the soil become dry before watering them again. They benefit from watering them deeply and infrequently rather than watering them lightly and regularly.
They prefer average to moderate humidity levels. To retain moisture and protect roots, mulching is recommended in cold or arid climates.
These plants are generally cold-hardy to about -20°F with a maximum of 50°F although this can vary depending on the specific needs of different varieties.
While these plants prefer rich soil that drains nicely, they can tolerate different soil conditions. Add compost before planting, as the plants grow best in soil rich with organic matter. They prefer slightly acidic pH levels for optimal growth.
While some varieties grow rather tall, others stay compact with dwarf varieties being best suited for container gardening. When the plant outgrows its home, gently release the root ball by placing the container on its side and tapping all around until it is easy to slide it from the pot. Choose a larger pot with lots of drainage holes about 8 inches or larger than the roots to let the plant grow comfortably for a few years before necessitating repotting. Add compost-rich soil to fill the pot to about a third from the bottom, insert the plant and fill the empty spaces and water thoroughly.
These plants are either propagated from seeds or hardwood/softwood cuttings. However, plants grown from collected seeds will differ from the original plant. Some varieties, like the glossy abelia, do not produce any seeds. Cuttings are better to get plants similar to the parent. If getting a plant with different flowers, fragrances or colors doesn’t worry you, growing these plants from seeds can be a rewarding process. You need a sunny area, moist and rich soil and, if starting them indoors, small pots.
Propagation from Seed
- Select a sunny area in your garden. Strew the seeds on moist and rich soil in spring – if the soil in your garden is poor, you can add compost before sowing. Water the seeds regularly to moisten the soil. Germination usually takes a few weeks.
- When starting seeds indoors, first fill small pots with moist, rich, and well-draining soil. Place a few seeds in every pot and gently firm them down to anchor them onto the soil. Move the pots to a warm location and keep watering regularly until germination occurs. When the seedlings are 3 – 4 inches high, transfer them outdoors to harden them until they can be transplanted to your garden.
Propagating by cuttings
Hardwood doesn’t root as easily as softwood cuttings. Cuttings ought to be taken during specific seasons – softwood spring and hardwood in autumn. Caring for both is similar, prepare a small pot filled with rich well-draining soil and cut away a 6-inch long branch below a node, remove lower leaves and dust the end into rooting powder, then gently insert into it the pot. Place it in a warm and sunny area and water regularly. Roots will form in 1 or 2 months.
Add compost every year to provide necessary nutrients. Additionally, you can add slow-releasing balanced fertilizer in early spring to give them a boost for new growth.
Occasional pruning will keep the shrubs looking neat and grow stronger. Pruning is better done in winter or early in spring to prevent pruning new growth or buds. Remove damaged/dead branches, never prune more than 1/3 of the foliage. Some varieties produce thin, long shoots that can be removed to provide ventilation and promote a cleaner appearance. Other varieties produce flowers on old stems, so prune after flowering is done. Don’t over-prune as this can affect flower production. Once established, they need very minimal maintenance.
When grown in an appropriate climate, they don’t require extra care to survive winter. However, container plants might need extra protection in cold climates and should be moved indoors.
While they are usually free from problems, aphids, powdery mildew, and anthracnose might attack them. Aphids can be controlled with insecticidal soap or neem oil. Suitable fungicides can control and treat powdery mildew. Anthracnose can cause some foliar damage and is usually treated with fungicide but this won’t cure already infected foliage. All affected foliage should be pruned away and destroyed.
Sometimes, the plant might have thick foliage and no flowers. This could relate to the higher content of nitrogen in your fertilizer. Use a fertilizer with a higher content of phosphorus.
Over-watering and soggy soil can initiate root rot, causing the leaves to become yellow. If root rot is suspected, carefully dig the plant up and remove infected roots and/or branches. Swap the soil with a well-draining mix of sand and compost and replant. Water only if the soil is very dry.