In flower or in leaf, indoors or out, these tender shrubs are true delights
by WAYNE WINTERROWD
THE GENUS NAME ABUTILON IS A PRETTY ONE, and although members of the genus have acquired several common names (Chinese lantern bush, flowering or parlor maple), “abutilon” is how most gardeners call them. Because their flowers are pendant and bell-shaped, I’ve always associated them with a line from a poem by e. e. cummings: “With up so floating, many bells down.” But the name is one more proof that not all botanical language is Greek and Latin, for it was swallowed whole into botany from an ancient Arabic word for many mallowlike plants.
The flowers make it easy to recognize abutilons’ kinship with other members of the mallow family (Malvaceae), for they possess the five crinkled paperlike petals, the central fused column of pistils and stamen, and the prominent calyx one sees in hibiscus, hollyhocks, cotton, okra, lavatera, and anisodontea. The distinction of abutilons, however, is that while most other members of their family produce flowers facing outward, they bear theirs—generally—as little cups dangling from threadlike stems, sometimes as much as two inches long. Flowers are usually only a little longer than that, including the prominent five-pointed calyx. So the effect of an abutilon flower is always of something delicately hung on the branch, far from the sturdy quaintness of hollyhocks tight against the stem, or the flamboyant, out-staring faces of hibiscus.
A MILD COLLECTION
In the very limited areas of North America where abutilons are hardy—chiefly southern Florida and the milder areas of the West Coast—gardeners will want to search out both pure species and the finest hybrids, to use as free-growing shrubs, espaliers, or even scandent, vinelike plants. In such privileged places, an extensive collection of abutilons would be a wonderful idea, for mere are approximately 150 species in the genus, and many showy hybrids. In particular, Abutilon vitifolium, an almost treelike shrub, to 15 feet, with silvery, felted leaves, could be sought. It is most wonderful in its white form, A. v. var. album, or the soft mauve-pink selection ‘Veronica Tennant’. A cross between A. vitifolium and A. ochsenii, designated as A. x suntense, is also especially beautiful, with clear violet-purple flowers, and sturdy. It can be kept in check as a large, mop-headed standard.
Saving Parlor Maples
Our grandmothers knew how readily abutilons accepted indoor growing conditions, calling them parlor maples. Given bright light and temperatures around 60T at night and 10 degrees higher in daytime, they will flourish and bloom all winter.
Just before frost, dig plants from the garden, trim them back hard, and pot them in a soilless compost, such as Pro-Mix. Keep plants shaded and watered until new growth appears. Then move them to a sunny window, pinch frequently to encourage bushy growth, and feed with water-soluble fertilizer on a regular basis.
Indoors, aphids and mealy bugs may be a problem, and should be eliminated with insecticidal soap. A few yellowed leaves are normal, and should be removed. Follow with a fresh application of liquid fertilizer to encourage new growth and flower. Rotate pots every few days to produce balanced growth. Long, awkward shoots may be cut back at any time. W.W.
In other parts of North America, only two pure species are offered with frequency. One is A. megapotamicum, with wandlike shoots sparsely clad in rounded to lance-shaped leaves and profuse flowers with clear yellow petals bunched tight together within a startling scarlet calyx. The calyx shows its color when still quite tiny, looking like a minute inflated balloon. The other pure species is A. pictum, with maplelike leaves and pendant, yellowish orange flowers. It is probably the plant your grandmother grew. It now shows up most frequently in the cultivar ‘Thompsonii’, which you either love or hate. Its flowers are the same color as the pure species, but its leaves are dusted and mottled with cream-yellow on a green background. They’ll appear beautiful to you, or like the worst case of red spider you ever saw.
Gardeners will find as many abutilons as they can use grouped under the designation Abutilon ? hybridum, indicating (as the word hybridum always does) a complex intermingling of species and back crosses of hybrids to produce interesting, gardenworthy plants. (In other words, a genetic grab bag.) So, plants may be compact or rangy, upright or hanging-basket material, with leaves rounded, or lobed like those of sugar maples, or arrow shaped, dark green, white margined, speckled over with gold, or so mottled with white that they seem ghostly. Flowers may be as small as a thimble or as large as a double shot glass, and their colors range through pure white and cream to pale and deep yellow, coral, orange, and crimson. The special charm of all abutilons in this group, however, is that their petals emerge from prominent calyxes that are themselves interestingly colored, sometimes a pale pea green, lavender, purple, or brick red, and sometimes the same fine color as the petals themselves.
Within the hybrid abutilons it is easy to have favorites, though, alas, they are often apt to change, as new ones appear every year. My own current choices are both procumbent, wonderfully suitable as hanging plants. ‘Kentish Belle’ bears ethereal, pinkish orange flowers with purple markings, and ‘Bartley Schwartz’ is clear orange with chartreuse calyxes. They both seem willing to bloom any time they are healthy, summer or winter.
As do most members of the mallow family, abutilons demand a rich, humusy soil, abundant light—in the form of full sun or very bright shade—and plenty of moisture, but with perfect drainage at their roots. They are quick growers, and frequently pinching out the tip of each shoot promotes bushy, attractive plants. They are unusually responsive to liquid fertilizer, which will almost overnight produce a doubly abundant crop of flowers. Curiously, freshly opened flowers will last two days out of water, making them suitable, I suppose, for use as living earrings.
For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 84.