Abutilons – Chinese lanterns for year round colour

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Chinese Lanterns (Abutilon hybrids) are one of my five top plants for a warm climate garden.

They ask so little and give so much; the dainty lantern-like flowers come in so many delightful colours; they provide colour in the garden for most of the year.

Though among the absolute easiest flowering shrubs to grow, they do need a bit of strategic pruning to give of their best – read on!

Chinese Lanterns have absolutely nothing to do with China because most of them come from South America. The majority have bell-shaped flowers that hang down, though there is at least one pinky-mauve type that holds its open face straight out to the sun. Colours range from yellow to various peach and salmon shades to red and yellow to mauve/pink. Leaves are usually soft and downy with three distinct lobes. They grow to 10 feet (3 metres) and the long branches tend to arch over if not controlled by pruning.

CLIMATE

Subtropical to warm temperate (USDA 9-11). Will grow in tropical climates if given good drainage. Tolerant of mild frost but not prolonged, hard frosts or snow. In colder climates can be grown in tubs outdoors and brought inside in winter.

POSITION

Sunny or part-shade. A good plant for filling a difficult corner provided there is good light or direct sun for at least half the day. Protect from strong wind that can break the long branches or uproot the entire plant.

SOIL

Loamy soil that’s slightly on the sandy side is best but abutilons are tolerant of most soils if given adequate drainage.

WATER

Needs to be well watered during establishment; after that water only in prolonged dry periods as this plant is quite drought tolerant. Don’t plant in low-lying boggy areas because abutilon roots can’t stand prolonged wet conditions. If given reasonably good drainage they can take short periods of extreme wet and dry weather better than most shrubs.

FERTILISER

Feed newly-planted abutilons with a liquid fertiliser after 4-6 weeks to encourage growth. Then feed with any balanced shrub fertiliser for the first year. After that, if you have good soil, no further feeding should be necessary. In soils where nutrition is low, add a dressing of blood and bone or compost in early spring.

MULCH

Young plants will benefit from mulching with any organic material but don’t apply in winter so that sun can warm the surrounding soil.

PROTECTION

Abutilons rarely suffer from pests and diseases. They MAY occasionally be subject to chewing by caterpillars or infestation by mites, or even fungal diseases, but these are rare. If problems occur, deal with them in the usual way (get advice from your local garden centre or read one of my gardening books); in my experience the plants usually recover from any sort of attack without help from me.

LANDSCAPING

These are excellent shrubs as either background or specimen shrubs because the variety of available colours makes them ideal for co-ordination with other plants. Grown as standards (see below) they make dramatic and easy-care accent features.

PRUNING

This is the key to having handsome plants that will flower prolifically most of the year. Tip prune young plants to promote bushiness and discourage “legginess”. Mature plants should be cut back by at least one third (to the nearest joint) at the end of winter or whenever flowering has ceased or slowed down considerably. This is if you want a tall bush, which most of us do. HOWEVER, abutilons look stunning when grown as standards; just encourage the strongest stem on young plants but cutting out all the other stems, supporting the main stem until it is thick and strong enough to stand alone. Or, you can keep two or three stems and twine them, as with wisteria. I’m not clever or patient enough to do that but I’ve seen others do it with wondrous results. Abutilons grown as standards are great talking points in the garden; they look just so elegant with the bright flowers hanging off them like porcelain ornaments!

Also, you can turn the leggy habit of abutilons to good account by espaliering them to a support and creating an arbour or walkway, or tying the top branches of taller varieties overhead to train them into an arch (pleaching).

IN THE POT
Abutilons need large pots to accommodate their size and fairly large root systems. Use a quality potting mix that drains well, water regularly, feed monthly with a balanced fertiliser that promotes flowering and re-pot once a year. They can be grown as multi-stemmed shrubs but look even better in the pot if trained as single-stemmed standards. Tip prune regularly and cut back by one third once a year to maintain size and shape.

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