Abelia, You’ve Stolen My Heart

There was a brief moment this summer when I felt like my childhood self, fully present, watching butterflies float around me, listening to the birds, and feeling the dappled sunlight on my face. I was sitting in the middle of a path lined with abelias, a plant that I have fallen in love with.

In the world of botany, Abelia x grandiflora is a member of the honeysuckle family, which is likely the reason for its popularity with  butterflies and hummingbirds.  By early summer, abelias are covered with clusters of tiny, bell-shaped flowers that persist into fall. As garden plants, they’ve been around for many years, but lately I find myself using them more and more. I will go out on a limb and say that they are possibly one of the most versatile and underutilized flowering shrubs you’ll find for the Southern garden. To prove my point, I’ll share the various ways I’ve used these charming shrubs in my own three-year old Georgia garden.

‘Canyon Creek’ abelia, planted along a path leading to my woodland garden.

‘Canyon Creek’ was the first abelia I chose to add to my new garden a few years back. I chose to plant a group of abelias because I had grown them in my previous garden, and knew they would do well in my sunny back yard, which tends to be a bit dry. More importantly, I wanted this shrub planting to look good year-round, as it would be framed by a series of large windows in my kitchen and family room that I walk past as I go about my day. (What you see from your windows is an important consideration when planning important garden elements, such as trees and shrub groupings.) I now have a total of seven abelias planted on either side of a granite path, which will in time, form a glorious tunnel of bloom in summer.

‘Edward Goucher’ in early fall.

My second abelia purchase for the new garden was a clearance sale plant, and while I was uncertain how I would use ‘Edward Goucher’ at the time, he is now planted near my garage in a corner with a few other shrubs. Edward was placed just in front of a tall panicle hydrangea that I’m sure the deer would love to nibble on, but the abelia foliage seems to confuse them. This has been a good strategy when combined with the occasional spray of deer repellant. Ed tends to collect a bit of dead wood at his base by the end of summer, but I’m okay with a little pruning now and then to tidy him up.

Abelia ‘Twist of Lime’ has vibrant yellow and green foliage in spring, mellowing to creamy yellow and green in summer.

‘Twist of Lime’ is number three on the abelia playlist for my garden, and a trio of these shrubs were added to create a full-stop at the far end of my garden near my raised beds. I’ve underplanted these abelias with bright blue plumbago, a groundcover, and next summer, I’ll amp up the volume by adding a few annuals in shades of fuchsia or orange. I love playful color combinations, and ‘Twist of Lime’ is a winner when combined with bright blooms in spring, summer, or fall.

Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’ has more variation in leaf color than other selections, adding to its appeal.

I recently tore out the remaining foundation plants that I inherited when we bought our house, and I’ve used a fourth abelia variety called ‘Kaleidoscope’ as part of a border in morning sun. This abelia has attractive multi-colored leaves, which seem to take on the vibrant hues of autumn in October. I’ve combined them with fall-blooming camellias, prostrate yews, and a few types of perennials, and they provide just enough variation in leaf shape and color to keep things interesting.

Why use abelias in a foundation planting when a perfectly good holly would suffice? Hollies have their place in the Southern landscape, but for foundation plantings I prefer to use plants that don’t require a lot of pruning as they mature. Many of the hollies and other woody plant material typically used by builders must eventually be pruned into submission every few weeks to keep them in check. I’m always looking for smaller-scale alternatives. Abelia fits the bill, because it can be kept at a fairly compact size without sacrificing blooms. I like the graceful, arching branches of the abelia, so I tend to limit my pruning to late winter, when I will cut a few of the taller branches to the ground. Abelias bloom on new wood, so it’s best not to repeatedly prune off new growth. (If you like to shear your shrubs with a gas-powered device, this is not the plant group for you.)

Have I reached the end of my abelia obsession? Only time will tell.  As my garden borders expand slowly over the years, there’s no doubt I’ll find a place for a few more of these delightful shrubs.

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