Abelia flowers, close-up view.
Most of my postings for “What’s in Bloom” feature native plants. I like to highlight the often-underused native species because they offer so much to native wildlife, including bees, butterflies, birds and moths. Native plants have co-evolved with native critters; the nutritional needs of the native animals often are completely in tune with the resources offered by the native perennials, trees, and shrubs. This time around, however, I’ve chosen a non-native highlight because I think it has some distinct offerings for bees and butterflies. It even offers something for nesting birds. The shrub I’m highlighting is Abelia.
Abelia, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden website, is in the honeysuckle family. It is native to Asia. Unlike some of its cousins, abelia does not set fruit and become invasive in the US.
Like some other Asian shrubs, this one tends to do well in acidic urban soils. At some point in the last half of the twentieth century it must have been very popular at local garden stores, because a lot of neighborhoods dating to the 1960s and 1970s have very big specimens of this plant. I suspect there was also a point when builders could buy it in huge quantities at cost along with those silver maples they planted so plentifully around here after they built new post war housing developments.
Since those tall abelia cultivars were so heavily used back in the day, a lot of people think of abeila as a HUGE shrub that reaches eight to nine feet in height. There are a lot of nice varieties available now in garden centers that stay nice and small, though, making this a really great shrub for a small city lot.
Another thing that makes abelia good for a city garden in the Mid-Atlantic states is the shrub’s somewhat deciduous characteristic. In winter, abelia’s thin branches will retain a few leaves that give some structure to an otherwise empty gardenThat semi-deciduous profile also means that birds like to shelter in abelias during snow storms. Again, the MoBo website provides some helpful info, however, as I note on their site that this shrub will die back all the way to the ground in cold locations (zone 6 and lower). Here in DC, we rarely see that happen, especially in the inner areas of the city where microclimates can make parts of our gardens — sheltered by brick walls and tall buildings — often feel more like zone eight or nine.
The absolute best thing about all of the abelias is their lovely nectar-rich, white flowers. Honey bees and native bees are drawn to come for a drink, and butterflies often linger at the blossoms as well.
There are many varieties to choose from. In my garden, I use “Little Richard” to screen out the offending view of my HVAC unit. Song sparrows seem to like its low growing form; I have had repeated nests appear there full of eggs in early summer. It really shines in late summer when the neighboring ironweed, switchgrass and black eyed susans next to it are in full bloom. All of the above plants attract numerous bees, which is really lovely for someone who loves buzzing insects as much as I do.
Abelia “Little Richard” stays relatively small in Maryland gardens. Shown here on the right, it is a good foil for black eyed-susans and other native plants.
I think it would also make an excellent companion for asters and coneflowers.
I note that on many websites “Fairie Dance” gets high marks for staying smaller, as well. A friend who lives along a busy street that often gets treated with road salt in the winter is trying “Kaleidoscope” because it is supposed to be tolerant of salty conditions, although he only planted it this spring so I can’t report any results on that experiment.
Abelia’s white flowers look great next to the purple blooms of Ironweed. Both attract a lot of bees and butterflies.
Because so many bees and butterflies visit this shrub, you’ll want to search for a nursery center that does not use with neonicotinoids (also known as systemic) pesticides. This may prove challenging in many locations, since so many of the commercial growers use neonics. If you are a nursery that sells this plant and you don’t use neonics, please post a comment letting us know! Same goes for those who may know of a source for neonic-free source in their own location.
A gardeners’ best bet may be to ask a friend if you can dig up a bit of their existing abelia. This one spread through suckering, so the chances they will have some to share are pretty good!