Monday, August 31, 2009

Abelia For Butterflies, Hummingbirds and Kids

Abelia is a genus of deciduous to evergreen shrubs native to Asia and Mexico. The genus is named for Dr. Clark Abel (1780 - 1826), a British surgeon and naturalist who collected seeds of one species during a visit to China. His original collection was lost due to unfortunate circumstances at sea, but he obtained more. In addition to the one that Dr. Abel collected (A. chinensis), there are approximately 30 other species. Most of the popular abelia plants on the market today are hybrids of A. chinensis and A. uniflora, A. x grandiflora (meaning "large flowers"), commonly called Glossy Abelia.

Abelia is in the honeysuckle family and, as you might expect, produces sweet nectar that attracts nectar-lovers including butterflies, hummingbirds and children. I was among them. My mother had a few old-fashioned abelia shrubs growing in our yard. My job was to prune them, and it seemed like I had to do it way too frequently. But I enjoyed watching the butterflies around them, and I loved picking off the flowers and sucking the nectar. Though there was little more than a hint of a taste, it was fun. Even more satisfying was showing my friends and introducing them to the pleasures of sipping nectar. "Pull the flower away from the stem, put the back end of the flower between your lips, bite off the tip, and sip. See? It's okay! Pretty good, huh?"

Since my youth, horticultural interest in Abelia has grown. Presently, there are several very good A. x grandiflora cultivars for your consideration. Most well-known are 'Canyon Creek', 'Edward Goucher', 'Francis Mason', 'Rose Creek', 'Sherwood'. A x 'Canyon Creek' and Abelia x 'Rose Creek' received the 2005 Georgia Gold Medal Award for their superb qualities. All exhibit glossy foliage. Foliage color may range from deep green to yellow/bronze and variegated. Flower colors range from white to pink. Even flower calyx is given much attention.

Abelia shrubs are useful in foundation plantings, perennial borders, butterfly and hummingbird gardens. The lower growing cultivars (as low as 24") serve well when planted en masse as shrubby ground covers. They require little maintenance, are disease and pest-resistant, and drought tolerant once established. They are hardy in USDA climate zones 6 through 9, thriving in full sun and partial shade. Recommended pH ranges from 5.6 to 7.8. Average well-drained soil is fine.

Before planting, take a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension Service office. For a small fee, they can run a lab test and tell you what your soil may need.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 10" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 14" deep. Composted manure may be incorporated into the soil. If you choose to use synthetic fertilizer, incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 3 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 8" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Plant Glossy Abelia 36" to 48" apart. If you are installing small plants, you may be tempted to space them closer together. Yield not to temptation. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Water the plants in their pots. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the roots. Do not cover the top of the root mass with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed.

Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 3" deep. The mulch helps retain soil moisture, so you can water less frequently. It also helps suppress weeds. Irrigate when necessary, but allow the soil to dry a bit between watering.

Should you consider Glossy Abelia for your garden? Think about it: colorful foliage, attractive flowers, butterflies and hummingbirds, adaptability to a wide range of pH conditions and climate zones, low-maintenance, no spraying required, and fun for kids (if you show them how to sip nectar). When you consider the features, you may find that Glossy Abelia is just right for you. "Pretty good, huh?"

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