A Gardener Coming of Age
Years back, I attended a lecture entitled ‘Tough Plants for Tough Sites’. One of the plants mentioned was Glossy Abelia, known botanically as Abelia x grandiflora. At the time, I considered this as a rather boring selection. After all, who wants an old-fashioned plant that everyone has seen and perhaps used verses something new and exciting! Fortunately, with age there often comes at least some degree of greater wisdom and my days at Rutgers Gardens has allowed me to look at this old-fashioned plant in a whole new light!
Abelia is a member of the Caprifoliaceae or Honeysuckle Family with around 30 species spanning Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. The genus name was penned by the Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858) and honors Dr. Clarke Abel (1780-1826) who was the first European to collect specimens of Abelia chinensis. Abel was a British physician and naturalist who accompanied Lord Amherst on a trip to China from 1816-1817 with the intention of improving relations with China. It was an ill-fated trip, since not only was the group kicked out of China when Lord Amherst refused to bow before the Emperor, but on the return voyage the boat was shipwrecked and pillaged by Pirates, losing all the plant specimens in the process. Fortunately, Abel shared some of his collection – including the Abelia – with a friend in Canton, while additional specimens were brought to Europe in 1844 by fellow plant explorer Robert Fortune (1812-1880).
As the name implies, Abelia x grandiflora is an interspecific cross between Abelia chinensis and another Fortune introduction, Abelia uniflora. The cross was first conducted in 1886 by the Rovelli Nursery in Verbana Italy. Glossy Abelia is an arching, multistemmed shrub that reaches heights and widths of 6’+ in the south (as pictured on the left), with a more moderate 4’ in the north. Interestingly, neither parent is exceptionally winter hardy for NJ, while Glossy Abelia is zone 6 hardy! As the common name belies, the ovate or egg-shaped foliage is a glossy deep green, with the new growth suffused with hints of red. The foliage is arranged oppositely along the stem, and since each leaf is merely 1 ½” long and 3/8” wide, the plant provides a refined texture for the garden. The pink blushed white flowers of all three plants are trumpet shaped, approximately ¾” long with a ¼” diameter. The flowers appear in clusters within the leaf axils along the upper 1/3 of the stem. Glossy Abelia has the longest duration of bloom, with new flowers appearing from June until frost! The advantage of Chinese Abelia is the wonderful fragrance the flowers provide and its ability to attract butterflies! Unfortunately, Glossy Abelia only has a faint fragrance, and is visited by only a few butterflies!
Since this plant provides floral interest from June ‘till frost, why is it featured as a plant for autumn interest, when clearly it would be better discussed in late summer when flowering shrubs are few and far between? Obviously, it has interest beyond flowers! First, upon enduring the first few frosts, the glossy dark green foliage turns a glossy deep bronze. With the flowers still appearing over this bronze background, that should be sufficient for autumn promotion, yet there is more! The calyces or leafy bracts that appear beneath the flower persist long after the flower have faded and, come cool temperatures of fall and into early winter, they turn a deep maroon-red as pictured below. Wow!
As is typical of most plants in the Caprifoliaceae, Abelia is also deer resistant! Furthermore, as alluded to in the introduction, it is a very adaptable to difficult sites once established. Glossy Abelia can withstand prolonged droughts, severe heat, and the various air and soil pollutants that accompany urban sites. Should the plant become leggy or too large for the site, it can simply be cut to the ground in March and allowed to resprout – since it blooms on new growth, flowering will not be impacted. Indeed, some of our tried-and-true plants are still our best plants – we simply need to grow old enough to understand the merits of an old-fashioned plant!