A few days ago, I was standing in our front garden, smugly gazing upon the flushing green leaves of one of my favorite shrubs, a ‘Rose Creek’ abelia. Why smugly? Well, it was set new last fall and was actually still alive, for one thing. And for another, I knew the little plant had a whole spring, summer and fall to provide cheer to its site. More anon on Rosy.
Abelia x Grandflora is a hybrid between Abelia chinensis (guess what? from China) and Abelia uniflora. The common name is glossy abelia, for its reflective, mostly evergreen, foliage when the sun shines. It has been around for perhaps a century, and is named for a Dr. Clarke Abel, a surgeon and chief medical officer to China from Great Britain in the 19th century. He collected seeds while on duty in China but they were lost on his return home.
Anyhow, it is an excellent shrub, winter hardy here but marginal to our north where, however, it can be raised as a cutback, taking off killed top growth after a hard winter. it will flower on new wood.
The first one of these I can remember was some 70 years ago when my pal, Crockett Mathis, and I were budding lepidopterists. We both had butterfly and moth collections and added to them as new species fell to our nets, either under streetlights, where most of our moths were caught, to neighborhood shrubs and flower beds.
We had spotted a giant swallowtail on an abelia bush at the corner of East Wood and Highland streets. Giant swallowtails are plentiful to our south but rare here and the battered specimen we spied must have blown in on a storm. Anyhow, it was feeding on the abelia quite actively and ignored us. Crockett beat me to the kill and netted the rarity. He might still have it in his collection. I must admit, we could not have cared less at the time about providing pollenization and survival of the species.
The straight glossy abelia will grow to some 8 feet or more if unimpeded, but can be kept to less than that easily with pruning. The white flowers aren’t exceptional in themselves, but en masse they make for a nice show. They are very fragrant, and draw butterflies even better than butterfly bushes.
The glossy abelia has given rise in recent years to many named varieties, varying from 2 feet or so to three times that. I have trialed several over the years and must say that ‘Rose Creek’ is my favorite among those readily found at nurseries. It grows densely to about 2 or 3 feet and has excellent foliage typical of the genus. The white flowers are plentifully produced in clusters and are as fragrant as those of the ancestor. They last a long time and pink calyxes left behind are attractive in themselves.
Other varieties have been somewhat less appealing, but still excellent shrubs. One older one is ‘Francis Mason,’ which grows to 4 feet or so and has subtly variegated foliage of green and yellow, most noticed when first leafing. Blooms are the usual fragrant white.
‘Canyon Creek’ is common and has yellow young foliage and nice clusters of white fragrant flowers. It will reach 5 feet if not pruned.
There are several newer varieties with more variegated foliage, but most of them have been weak growers for me. The more the variegation, the weaker the growth is a good rule. One of these is ‘Kaleidoscope.’ It will knock your eyes out in the nursery, but has done poorly for me. It could be just me. Surely not. Anyhow, I think it does better in more sun, though most varieties will take considerable shade.
There are numerous others, almost all with white flowers. All are worth trying, and I see some of the variegated ones looking better in your garden than mine.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack — Grow all the abelias you can.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.