Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Abutilons do not fit into a clean category for landscape architects. When we think of evergreen shrubs in California, boxwoods and India hawthorns might come to mind with their densities, lushness, and easy forms to manipulate into mounds, hedges, or topiaries. Reliability, too, but Abutilons defy simple templets for the following reasons. There is the common name, flowering maple, which suggests something similar to a Japanese maple, and if you follow this visualization, the imagery will lead toward colorful fall maples leaves on a sculptural tree. In reality, the only features that Abutilons share with maple trees are the shapes of the leaves and maybe suitable conditions for growth. Therefore, while they may be able to substitute for Japanese maples in very specific situations, flowering maples will not achieve the overall desired effect.
As members of the Malvaceae family, they produce prolific blooms that look like hibiscus flowers but more cupped and hang downward. Seeing mostly the silhouette of a pendulous flower is still attractive because of their coloring and form, but the blooms lend this shrub to a perennial border more than a shrub border, although there are certain exceptions for the talented designer. Their growth tends to be more open and loose as compared to other shrubs with density, and heavily pruning them will only aggravate their success, reducing their bloom productivity and limiting their airy feel. Then there are the whiteflies. The combination of cold protection and light shade may lead to a lack of air circulation, leaving Abutilon vulnerable to this prolific insect. Legginess, or lankiness, is also a problem, and combined with their brittle structures, a heavy limb could indeed break. Therefore, for designers, Abutilon might be desirable for their color and unusual form, but this species is better suited for residential gardens and botanic collections rather than commercial developments, as an example. Ages ago while living in San Francisco, I noticed abutilons were a hit in cool courtyard gardens, particularly when well-tended by their owners.
Botanical Name: Abutilon x hybridum (syn. Abutilon hybrids)
Abutilon: Latin derived from Arabic (abu-tilun) for Indian Mallow
Hybridum: Mixed heritage creating new hybrids
Common Name: Flowering maple; Chinese lantern; Chinese bellflower; Parlor maple
Family Name: Malvaceae
Origin: South America
Positioning: Middle to background (allow for positive air circulation)
Garden Themes: Sub-tropical, Asian-inspired, woodland/shade, pollinator, hummingbird, courtyard
Uses: Accent, specimen, containers, topiary, espalier
Type: Evergreen shrub (semi-deciduous/deciduous in colder regions)
Form: Upright, arching vase
Size: Size per cultivar (18" to 6' or more high and wide)
Outstanding Feature(s): Flower
Shape: Palmate, cordate
Margin: Serrate, lobed, crenate
Color: Medium to light green; some cultivars have variegated or yellow leaves. No fall color.
Flower: Spring to summer. Bell-shaped showy flowers in red, orange, yellow, pink or white. Flowers hand downward.
Fruit: Not observed at time of posting.
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 8,9, 12-24; H1, H2
USDA Zones: 8-11
Light: Sun (coastal), light shade to partial shade (inland)
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Moderate
Texture: Loam, clay, well-composted
Moisture Retention: Well-drained
pH: Highly acidic to neutral
Tolerances: Unknown at time of posting.
Problems: Moderate toxicity from leaves causing irritation
Branch Strength: Weak
Insects: Whiteflies, mealy bug, scale, aphids
Disease: Not observed at time of posting.
citations & attributions
Bayton, R. (2019). The Royal Horticultural Society's the Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names. London: Mitchell Beazley.
Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. "Abutilon x hybridum." North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Accessed on July 31, 2021, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/abutilon-x-hybridum/.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Plant Finder. "Abutilon x hybridum." Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. Accessed on August 1, 2021, from http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=291793.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on July 27, 2021.
Wisconsin Horticulture. "Flowering Maple, Abutilon spp." Division of Extension, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Accessed on August 1, 2021, from https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/flowering-maple-abutilon-spp/.
All photos by TELCS.