Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ode to Abelia

Looking for a good shrub that can withstand the hot sun of warmer climates and will tolerate pretty much any soil, including dreaded clay?

How about one that blooms for several months and attracts butterflies?

And while we're at it, how about one that has beautiful fall foliage but also keeps most of its leaves in the winter?

Believe it or not, there is such a shrub  - the under-appreciated and often over-looked Glossy Abelia

Abelia 'Little Richard'
Abelias are mounding shrubs whose branches have an arching habit.  They stay semi-evergreen or even evergreen depending on the cultivar and location.  They are not as hardy in colder climates, however, and may die back every year in cooler locations. 

Abelias bloom for several months throughout the summer and into early fall.  Depending on the type, the trumpet-shaped blooms may be white, pink, or lavender and are clustered at the end of the branches.

'Little Richard' Abelia sports white flowers.
The bushes are a magnet for the bees and butterflies while in bloom.  I have also heard that hummingbirds like them, but have not seen any on my bushes.

Monarch butterfly on Abelia.
When the flowers drop, they leave the pretty clusters of reddish sepals, which provides interest in autumn.  The foliage will often turn a bronze color as well.

'Little Richard' Abelia in fall - many of the leaves have turned a reddish-orange color.
My Abelia bushes are situated in rather poorly-drained clay and part to full sun.  Abelias do need sun to do well.  One place where I often see Abelias are in parking lot strips.  They must be tough plants to survive there!

You might not recognize those bushes under the trees, but they are Abelias.  They've just been pruned into rounded lumps.

Abelias pruned this way will not bloom.
Okay, Abelias must have some drawback, right?

Well, as previously mentioned, Abelias do not do so well in colder climates.  Some cultivars are hardier than others.   Additionally, cultivars like 'Little Richard' and 'Sherwoodii' will occasionally send out abnormally tall shoots straight out of the middle, a reversion to the species.

Abnormal shoots in the middle of 'Little Richard' Abelia.  Notice that they are straight instead of arching.
If your Abelia throws out these shoots, reach your hand in the shrub and prune them near the ground.  Don't do what I did the first year I had them and cut them off right at the top of the bush - they just branched and continued to shoot straight up!

Pruning Abelias: Do not just take hedge clippers to Abelias and shear them - they will just branch there and look strange instead of arching gracefully (believe me, I've done it!)  Instead, prune by cutting the oldest or straggliest branches way back to the ground.  If the whole bush is starting to look really sad and leggy, you can try cutting the whole bush back to a foot or two high to rejuvenate it.  Prune Abelias in winter, as they bloom on new growth.

Some popular Abelias varieties are Abelia x grandiflora (8 feet tall with white flowers), 'Edward Goucher' (pink flowers), and 'Kaleidoscope' (colorful, variegated leaves and white flowers).  My Abelia 'Little Richard' get up to 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide, despite being touted as a dwarf cultivar.

So if you need a sun loving shrub that will grow in challenging conditions, check out Abelias. They might be the shrub for you.


  1. I have 3, and none are doing what I want! They are spindly and don't flower much. My fault, as they are all in too much shade. So, Indie, can I move them? Two are small but one is 2 metres high.

  2. I would guess that the best time to move them is probably in very early spring, Lyn, before they break dormancy. It's spring there now, right? You just probably don't want to move them during the blooming period, as that might be too much for them.

    I've never moved one, but they seem to be very hardy bushes. Recently I chopped one completely to the ground hoping to kill it (it was in a very awkward spot or else I would have moved it), and it immediately started coming back.

    Good luck with your Abelias!

  3. Mine is in part sun and blooms quite well. I radically pruned it a couple of years ago and it bounced right back. I agree with what you say about it - it's a great shrub for the South.

  4. I'll sing there praises too. I have one in the back garden that quietly does it's job and have just bought 2 more for pots outside our front door!! x

  5. Dear Indie,
    Enjoyed your article.... I have the larger Grandiflora and it smells wonderful. They are under native oaks and the giant yellow swallowtail visit them. Now, I will take a look at the other varieties. Thanks

  6. Abelias do well here and are a favorite of the bees. I remember them from when I was a child - we always referred to them as the "bee bushes". They are so much prettier when allowed to branch naturally - I'm not a fan of those that are pruned into mounds.

  7. I don't have any of these but admire several in my neighbors garden. Thanks for all the information. I may look at getting a few in the spring. I agree with Ginny, I like the more natural look.

  8. Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment, yours is also very interesting and, I love learning about gardening in other regions.

  9. They are really excellent here as well, in a much different climate, and mine are big hummingbird magnets. A very under appreciated plant. Great post.

  10. Your advice on pruning abelias is very helpful -- thanks!

  11. I'm not sure which kind I have. The have a varigated leaf and white flowers. My issue is that I planted them in the spring and the inside, down in the midde close to the ground, looks dead. They are brown and leggy but above this is beautiful green and flowering. They are spread out, not like a bush. It looks like an animal has slept in the middle of each of them (I know this has not happened). I'm in Georgia zone 7b. What do I do? Thank you for any help.


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