A long flowering period rewards cultivation of this plant if offered protection, says Miranda Kimberley.

Abutilon Megapotamicum - image: FlickR/Titanium22
Abutilon Megapotamicum - image: FlickR/Titanium22

British growers have been having a tough time with Abutilon this year. Many are on the borderline between frost hardy and tender and during last year's harsh winter stock was lost so there are not huge numbers on the market.

But it would be a shame for two unusually cold winters to stop this beautiful mallow flowered genus being promoted. If customers are warned that they need protection they can be an excellent garden plant and always make an attractive conservatory plant.

The genus of around 150 trees, shrubs and herbs from tropical and subtropical regions are treasured for their long-flowering nature. The flowers they begin to produce in summer range from large, open bell-shaped blooms to smaller, funnel-shaped blooms. They tend to be red, orange or yellow. Most Abutilon available in the UK are suitable for a conservatory or cold greenhouse and those that are garden worthy need a sunny spot with the shelter of a wall or fence.

A. megapotamicum is one of the hardier species, coping down to -5 degsC or -10 degsC, though it still needs to be planted near a wall. It has the most lovely flowers, which look like red Chinese lanterns from which yellow petals and stamens emerge. Its slender stems can be trained up a wall or fence. Otherwise it can be used as a patio plant and moved into a frost free position in the winter.

A. vitifolium, named after its downy, grey foliage that resembles vine leaves, is slightly less hardy. It's a vigorous shrub with mauve flowers that can become a large, free-standing shrub in milder areas, but in colder areas it is best to plant it next to a sunny wall providing shelter.

Probably the toughest are the A. (approx equal to) suntense hybrids - a cross between A. ochsenii and A. vitifolium. A. 'Jermyns' is an excellent form, with large purple-blue flowers during May and into June. It can reach around 4m high so needs a good space.

A. pictum is the frost tender species featuring apricot flowers with red veins, which is grown as a spot plant for bedding. Good conservatory specimens include 'Nabob', with deep crimson flowers, and 'Canary Bird' with large pure yellow flowers. They will flower throughout the year given the best conditions.

Once shelter from cold and wind has been addressed, Abutilon are easy to grow. They are vigorous plants, and will likely need to be pruned quite hard. Young specimens can be tip pruned to promote bushiness. Mature specimens can be cut back hard annually in the spring.

Give Abutilon plants plenty of water and nutrients. Tomato fertiliser is a good choice. They produce large root systems so if destined for the patio or conservatory they should be potted into large pots. If inside they are susceptible to whitefly and in the garden they can be prey to aphids.

What the specialists say

- Ashley Ramsbottom, proprietor, Larkspur Nursery, Spalding

Abutilon plants have pretty flowers, a good colour range and are long flowering in a good situation. They are suitable for a conservatory, as summer bedding, in patio containers and outdoors in a sheltered spot. They respond well to pruning.

The varieties that stand out for me are 'Kentish Belle', 'Red Bells', 'Lemon Queen', 'Linda Vista Peach' and 'Pink Lady'. My personal favourite is 'Red Bells' because it is a prolific flowering, robust plant with glossy green leaves suitable for indoors. I also like A. vitifolium, the purple or white flowered shrub, often seen at historic houses, which flowers prolifically during the early summer and is a good choice for outdoors. Another good one is A. megapotamicum 'Variegatum'

- a bright trailing plant, with exotic red and yellow Chinese lantern flowers, which grows well against a fence or wall and is a popular choice for a smaller garden.

They should be positioned carefully outside, protected from frost if tender and even the hardier species should be protected from harsh frosts. The winter of 2010 -11 was fatal for many Abutilon, due to prolonged periods of very cold weather.

- Kevin Bosustow, manager, Cross Common Nursery, Cornwall

Abutilon are underused in people's gardens. They are very free flowering and will flower for most of the year in a mild climate. A species that stands out for me is A. vitifolium, which performs well in coastal gardens in the South West and grows into a small tree with silvery, felty leaves and white saucer shaped flowers. A.megapotamicum is a popular variety as it is slightly hardier with an abundance of small red and yellow flowers through summer. A particular favourite of mine is A. 'Ashford Red', which has large bowl shaped light red flowers with yellow stamens.

They are best grown in a warm sheltered site or against a wall, protected from cold drying wind, in a free draining soil.

In Practice

- John Winterson, deputy buyer, RHS Plant Centres

We sell a mixture of hardy and non hardy Abutilon, but the hardy ones are most popular with our customers. These are generally sold in a 3 litre deep pot tied to a 1m cane. We advise customers give them some shelter, such as growing them against a warm wall in cold areas, or try growing the suntense types as these are much tougher. We also sell some as bedding lines and they usually sell on impulse in flower.

'Kentish Belle' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is by far the most popular, probably due to its prolonged flowering period and pleasing colour. It is easy to grow and has good availability. This sells well from the A-Z shrub section and also as an impulse line from a display table, when in flower.

I am pleased that A. (approx equal to) suntense 'Jermyns' AGM is up there with the popular ones as this is a real stunner. In the garden, the plant will be covered in large purple-blue flowers during most of May and often into June and with its felty leaves makes a superb specimen. Give it some space as it grows up to about 4m.

Species and varieties

- A. 'Ashford Red' is a half-hardy shrub that needs protection from the frost. Its flowers are strawberry red and it has large, apple green leaves. Flowers for most of the year when growing well. Ideal for conservatories and mild areas. Height: 2-3m.

- A. 'Canary Bird' produces pendant pure yellow bell-shaped flowers from spring to autumn. It also features large rounded soft mid green leaves. Grows outside in mild areas or in the conservatory. Height and spread: 2.5m.

- A. 'Kentish Belle' AGM (H2-3) was the result of a cross of A. (approx equal to) milleri and A. 'Golden Fleece'. Its a frost hardy shrub that needs some shelter in cold areas. It has large burnt orange and yellow flowers that hang down. Ideal for growing against a wall or a fence. Height: 2m.

- A. 'Marion' AGM (H2) is a half-hardy shrub that needs protection from frost. It has orange flowers for most of the year when growing well. Suited to conservatories and mild areas. Height: 120cm.

- A. megapotamicum AGM (H3) or trailing Abutilon is a graceful shrub with slender stems from which hang attractive red and yellow pendant flowers. It produces dark green lance-shaped leaves. Its best grown against a warm wall, providing shelter from cold winds and frost. Can be short-lived. Height and spread: 2m.

- A. megapotamicum 'Variegatum' is a frost-hardy shrub that needs some shelter in cold areas. It produces large red and yellow flowers and yellow splashed leaves. Suited to a conservatory or growing against a wall or fence. Height: up to 2m.

- A. (approx equal to) milleri hort. is the result of a cross between A. megapotamicum and A. pictum. It is a medium-sized shrub, bearing bell-shaped, orange flowers with crimson stamens. Its leaves are dark green.

- A. (approx equal to) milleri hort. 'Variegatum' produces apricot bell-shaped flowers from summer to autumn and maple-like leaves with striking cream variegation. Suitable for a conservatory and makes a good dot plant for a bedding scheme. Maximum height and spread: 2.5m.

- A. 'Nabob' AGM (H2) is a half-hardy shrub that needs protection from the frost. It produces deep crimson flowers. A good conservatory plant. Height: 2m.

- A. 'Souvenir de Bonn' is a half-hardy shrub that has sharply toothed and lobed leaves, broadly edged with white, and drooping apricot flowers, veined with red. Height: 2m.

- A. (approx equal to) suntense is a cross between A. ochsenii and A. vitifolium. It is a large, fast-growing shrub with dark mauve to blue blooms that flowers freely between May and July. Height: 4m.

- A. (approx equal to) suntense 'Jermyns' AGM is an excellent form, with clear, dark mauve flowers. Height: 4m.

- A. vitifolium is a vigorous, frost hardy shrub that likes sun and some shelter. It produces saucer-shaped pale to deep mauve flowers for a long period over May to July. Height: 4-5m.

- A. vitifolium 'Album' is a nice white form, with large flowers up to 8cm across. Its lobed leaves are grey and downy. Maximum height: 5m. Spread: 2.5m.

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