Abelia–Tough But Beautiful
Glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) is often described as a tough plant. In fact, Carol Robacker, one of the horticulturalists involved with the abelia breeding program at University of Georgia, described abelia this way: “Around here, we call abelia the gas station plant. You could plant it beside a gas station surrounded by asphalt and forget about it, and it would still survive and thrive.”
But abelia is not just tough, it’s also beautiful. It adds colorful, fragrant blossoms when most other flowering shrubs have succumbed to summer heat, or to summer dry spells, or have just plain tuckered out.
Abelia, a formerly recognized genus that contained about 30 species and hybrids, was placed in the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae, in 2013. These deciduous and evergreen shrubs are native to eastern Asia (Japan west to the Himalayas) and southern North America (Mexico). The genus name honors Dr. Clarke Abel (1780-1826), physician and naturalist, who collected seed and plants as part of a British expedition to China in 1817. All of Abel’s seeds and plants, however, were lost in a shipwreck on the homeward voyage. Living plants of Abelia chinensis (now Linnaea chinensis) were first imported to England in 1844 by Robert Fortune.
A recent study by Kew Gardens separated the 30 species of Abelia into four genera. New cultivars, especially from the very popular Abelia x grandiflora (glossy abelia), have proliferated, with over 30 mentioned in the literature. A. x grandiflora is a cross between A. chinensis (Chinese abelia) and A. uniflora.
Glossy abelia is a multi-stemmed shrub which features clusters of white, bell-shaped flowers (to 3/4″ long) with a persistent, reddish calyx which gives the flowers a pinkish tinge. Flowers are fragrant and offer a continuous bloom from early summer to fall. Ovate, glossy, opposite, dark green leaves are pinkish when new and turn purplish-bronze in autumn. The bark is exfoliating. A. x grandiflora prefers an acidic, moist, well-drained site but tolerates clay, damp, or dry soil. A thin layer of mulch is recommended so that the soil can drain. The shrub is generally cold-hardy to about 0ºF., although some varieties are more or less tolerant of extreme cold. It grows in Zones 6-9, but it reaches a larger size when grown in warmer climates. In Zones 5-6, stems can die back to the ground in winter. It is evergreen, semi-deciduous, or deciduous, depending on the hardiness zone.
On average, the shrub grows 3-6’ tall and wide. Cultivars offer a range of sizes, including dwarf shrubs suitable for containers. Its arching habit does best when left unpruned. However, if you prefer a tidier look, prune in late winter/early spring because A. x grandiflora blooms on new wood. It can also survive severe pruning if that becomes necessary. Plants occasionally produce tall, vigorous shoots that are typical of the species and not the cultivar (genetic reversion to the parental characteristic). These vigorous shoots should be removed to the base.
There are many cultivars offering different shrub sizes, flower color, and foliage color that changes from summer through fall. The cultivars are heat and drought resistant. Although they flower best in full sun, they also tolerate partial shade.
Examples of A. x grandiflora Cultivars:
- ‘Rose Creek’ has evergreen leaves that look pinkish when new but turn purplish through late summer. Clusters of fragrant, white tubular-shaped flowers are produced from May through frost. Below each flower is a light pink calyx that imparts color even after the flowers fade. The plant grows into a mounded shape 2-3’ tall and at least 3’ wide with reddish stems. It is an excellent choice for shrub borders and foundation plantings. ‘Rose Creek’ was developed by Michael A. Dirr, University of Georgia.
- ‘Canyon Creek’ is a taller 4-6’ variety with coppery-pink leaves that turn yellow and then green. Light pink flowers bloom throughout the growing season. The shrub is semi-evergreen to deciduous in zone 7. Also developed by Dirr.
- ‘Little Richard’ is a compact plant growing to 3’ tall and wide with abundant small white flowers. New foliage is bright red, then turns a glossy vivid green in summer, and tangerine-pink in fall.
- ‘Kaleidoscope’ was discovered in 1997 as a variegated branch sport of A. x grandiflora ‘Little Richard’. ‘Kaleidoscope’ is a dense, semi-evergreen, compact shrub with reddish purple stems. New foliage emerges as green and yellow; turns gold in summer; and then fiery-red-to-orange in fall. Its pink buds open into white fragrant flowers that persist into fall. ‘Kaleidoscope’ grows 2-2.5’ tall and 3-4’ wide. Its smaller size makes it suitable for growing in patio containers, or massed on slopes for attractive shrubby cover and erosion control.
A Sampling of Other Cultivars:
‘Edward Goucher’ was introduced in 1911 by Edward Goucher of the United States Department of Agriculture. A cross between A. x grandiflora and shumannii, the shrub typically grows to 2-3′ tall in colder zones and to 5’ tall in Zones 8-9. It is less cold hardy than glossy abelia and does best in Zones 6a and warmer. Clusters of lavender-pink, funnel-shaped flowers (to 3/4″ long) with orangish-yellow throats bloom from mid-summer into fall. Ovate, glossy, dark green leaves turn purplish-bronze in autumn.
- ‘Raspberry Profusion’, a seedling selection of ‘Edward Goucher’ x chinensis, blooms heavily from May to September. The entire plant is covered with big clusters of strongly-scented, pink flowers with flamboyant raspberry sepals. The sepals remain after the flowers drop, extending the color until the end of autumn. The shrub is robust and compact, growing to 3-4’ tall and wide. It is mostly deciduous in the winter. Developed by Carol Robacker, University of Georgia.
- ‘Lavender Mist’ is also a seedling selection of ‘Edward Goucher’ x chinensis. It’s a heavy bloomer, with clusters of fragrant lavender flowers beginning in mid-June and continuing into autumn. Sepals are a straw-green color at the base, becoming rose at the tips. Summer foliage is gray-green. It grows 3-4’ tall and wide. It is mostly deciduous in the winter. Developed by Carol Robacker and Sloane M. Schreiber, University of Georgia.
Abelia mosanensis, fragrant or Korean abelia, is an evergreen or semi-evergreen hybrid species that reaches a height of 4-6’ or more, has especially fragrant flowers, and a shorter bloom period (May to June). Its bright green, ovate leaves often have a bronze or reddish tint when emerging. The flower buds are rich reddish-pink and open to white funnel-form flowers. The obovate sepals often have an attractive pink tint and persist long after the flowers fall. Note: This shrub flowers on old wood, so prune right after flowering.
Abelia attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees.
PEST AND DISEASE PROBLEMS
Abelia exhibits no serious pest or disease problems, and is very resistant to deer. It also tolerates air pollution.
The Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council (GA-EPPC) recommends Abelia x grandiflora and glossy abelia cultivars as alternatives to non-native shrubs that are invasive. (The GA-EPPC cautions that invasiveness could become a factor at some point in the future for any of the recommended alternative plants.) This GA-EPPC site provides lists of non-native invasives; non-native alternatives; and native alternatives. There are lists for trees, shrubs, vines, groundcovers, ornamental grasses, and herbaceous perennials.
Abelia x grandiflora is also included on a list of drought-tolerant shrubs compiled by Clemson University Extension in August, 2016.
HOW TO USE ABELIAS
Because of their compact shape, abelias are often used as foundation plants. The taller varieties are used for borders or hedges. The dwarf varieties are suitable for containers or massed on slopes for attractive shrubby cover and erosion control. Abelias’ hardiness and adaptability make them a popular choice for commercial landscapes and for demanding environments such as parking lots.
If you are looking for a shrub that will keep blooming through the end of summer when most other plants have waved the white flag, consider the abelia. Though not native, it does not exhibit invasive properties. It is deer, pest, and disease resistant. It attracts many different pollinators. It offers a variety of colorful blooms and foliage that evolves in color as the season progresses. Who wouldn’t make space in their garden for such an undemanding, rewarding bloomer?
Abelia, NC State Extension, https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/abelia-x-grandiflora/
“Suggested Alternatives to Non-native Invasive Plants,” Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council, https://www.gaeppc.org/alternatives/
“Plants That Tolerate Drought,” Clemson University Extension, https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/plants-that-tolerate-drought/
Glossy Abelia, Abelia x grandiflora, Virginia Cooperative Extension, https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/3010/3010-1488/3010-1488.html
“Two New Abelias: Beautiful and Deer Resistant,” Moya Andrews, Indiana public media, https://indianapublicmedia.org/focusonflowers/two-new-abelias/
Abelia ‘Edward Goucher’, http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=a930
“The Sweet Smell of Spring: Abelia Mosanesis,” Nancy Rose, Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/2013-70-4-the-sweet-smell-of-spring-abelia-mosanensis.pdf
Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope,’ http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=359785&isprofile=1&gen=abelia
“New Varieties Provide a Host of Bloom Colors, Plant Sizes,” University of Georgia, https://www.griffin.uga.edu/news/new-varieties-provide-host-bloom-colors-plant-sizes
‘Raspberry Profusion’ and ‘Lavender Mist’: “New Abelia Cultivars for the Landscape,” HortScience, http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/41/4/1020.4.abstract
“Abelia: A plant made for Georgia summer, Daily Citizen-News, http://www.dailycitizen.news/news/lifestyles/abelia-a-plant-made-for-georgia-summer/article_229d2687-8db6-555a-8e36-8be1b4921ce6.html
Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs (Dirr, Michael, 2011)