Abutilon Seashell

Flowering Maple Bush;
aka, Chinese Lanterns

"More especially this attractive unreality fell upon it about nightfall, when the extravagant roofs were dark against the afterglow & the whole insane village seemed as separate as a drifting cloud. This again was more strongly true of the many nights of local festivity, when the little gardens were often illuminated, & the big Chinese lanterns glowed in the dwarfish trees like some fierce & monstrous fruit."

-The Man Who Was Thursday,
G. K. Chesterton


"Flowering" Maple Bush no kidding. This thing had four inches of sudden snowfall smash it flat (in 2001). I was worried sick it was damaged, but the snow melted, it sprang back up instantly, & kept right on flowering all winter! It just never gives up.

Abutilon SeashellThough commonly called "Flowering Maples" because of the shape of the leaves, they are of course not related to maples, but are members of the hibiscus family. The alternate name for them, "Chinese Lanterns," alludes to the dangling blooms. This name is a misnomer since Abutilons are from South America, not China.

This one is Abutilon megapotamicum 'Seashell.' It is not really a temperate zone plant, which is why it doesn't have the good sense not to bloom in winter. A California grower said it would be deciduous in western Washington, but ours has been evergreen just as in warmer climates. We had decided to give it a try because it is known to be one of the hardiest varieties, & we had seen one doing very well for several years on a street margin in front of a Tacoma nursery that sells a lot of abutilons.

Abutilon Path We put it at the foot of the side-deck staircase where it gets direct sun morning to noon. It has been perfectly happy there, & got so large we had to install a trellis behind it merely to keep it from spreading over the whole staircase, & prune it periodically to keep it off the path. The third photo shows the path in October, with the abutilon on the right hand side & a row of shrubs opposite along the fenceline, a footpath between that gives ever impression of being in the woods.

If it did ever experience a prolonged cold snap, it would likely die back. But here on mild-wintered Puget Sound, it has been almost entirely evergreen for us. Just at the start of spring it does finally begin to get tatty-looking & the leaves get spotty, but with a good trimming for shape & a bit of patience, it returns back to full glory by spring's end. It's rather curious that it is admittedly less than perfect through much of spring, after having held its own through all of winter. It's power-blooming late spring to the end of winter more than makes for its imperfections in early spring.

Abutilon SeashellIn warmer areas it can reach ten feet tall. Ours grew rapidly to four feet, & has since striven to reach six feet, with lower branches turning into creepers. It's "creeper" capacity isn't strong since it mostly wants to be upright & bushy, but it has enough of a viny tendency that it can be trained to a trellis if a gardener is so inclined.

Though we did give it a trellis, it is not at all espaliered; the trellis serves only as a decorative "wall" between the shrub & the steps. When 'Seashell' exceeds six feet we cut it back to five, to keep it from blocking path & stairs, & to preserve its compact appearance.

There are abutilon clubs throughout the United States in warmer places than Puget Sound. They have champions no less fanatic than rose enthusiasts, & I can understand why. I read some stuff on-line by a gardener in Alaska who just couldn't live without them, & figured out how to keep them even though they die completely to the ground where winters get that cold, but can succeed even so as die-back perennials if heavily mulched for winter protection of the roots.

In all, this has been an amazingly rewarding shrub. It's supposed limitations in our mild temperate weather has been more than exceeded. While the majority of abutilons would be scruffier & less rewarding in our microclimate, 'Seashell' is one of the great exceptions.

See also:
Abutilon darwinii x A. pictum 'Luteus'


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