Chinese lanterns from Brazil part of quirky plant world

The plant world is quirky. The gotta-have-it plant of two decades ago is now hortus non grata.

The plant world is quirky. The gotta-have-it plant of two decades ago is now hortus non grata.

The plant world is quirky. The gotta-have-it plant of two decades ago is now hortus non grata.

Huechera “Palace Purple,” chosen Perennial Plant of the Year in 1991, is hard to find today. The native American Redbud, with its statuesque form and abundance of rosy pink blossoms, has been pushed aside by its offspring, Cercis canadensis “Forest Pansy.” Never mind the child’s contorted form and less vibrant flowers. It’s the deep purple leaves that are all the rage.

The streets of Seville, Spain, are lined with California Fan Palms. Southern Magnolias are more common in the newly constructed satellite cities of China than in Atlanta. The elegant American native Sycamores take a back seat to the European hybrid, the London Plane Tree.

Then there is the little known, easy to grow, incredibly rewarding Abutilon megapotamicum. The vibrant red and yellow, inch-and-a-half-long flowers, which look like little silk Chinese lanterns, have been covering this shrub, abundantly, since June. They’ll likely go into September or even the first frost. So why is it all but impossible to find in a nursery?

It’s a bush. A rangy, old-fashioned bush, that is gobsmackingly beautiful in summer. Numerous stems shoot up and arch out 2 to 6, sometimes 10, feet. The wiry branches are covered with lobed, arrow shaped leaves (1 1/2 to 3 inches long, a third as wide) and profusely lined with the flowers.

Tip pruning long branches keeps this shrub from getting too obstreperous, but other than that, allow it to fill a space and show off. Fill space it will. Given a south or west facing spot along a garden wall or standing in the middle of a sunny bed surrounded by lower plantings, you’ll have something to cheer your spirits and dazzle your visitors all summer.

A wildly popular container plant in China, Abutilon megapotamicum is native to southern Brazil. Little known in European and American horticulture, it seems never to have picked up a common, English name. It hails from a genus with about 150 species. You might have bought one of its cousins (Flowering Maple or Indian Mallow) as a summer annual or indoor plant.

Beautiful as these are, they are not hardy in our climate; A. megapotamicum is. If you find a plant, it is best put in the ground after March 15, giving it time to set down good roots and establish itself in case an unexpectedly cold winter sets in. Once settled, it will handle our coldest weather just fine. Keep it well watered through summer. Feed it monthly through growing season (mid-April to early October) with a liquid plant food, diluted to manufacturer’s instructions. Or you can also sparingly scatter a 12-12-12 granular fertilizer around the base of the plant on Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Or layer on a thick (up to 4 inches) top dressing of compost. Regular feeding assures a continuous and robust flower crop.

This Abutilon is extremely easy to propagate. I cut wood stems, 4 to 6 inches long, from last year’s and a bit of this year’s growth. I strip the lower leaves, trim off the terminal bud, leaving about five or six leaves on the shoot. These go in a vase of regularly changed water. In 30 to 60 days, roots will appear on many of the harvested cuttings. When roots are established and long, I plant the shoots in fresh potting mix, sit the containers on an east facing windowsill and keep the soil constantly wet. Come spring, they go outdoors into the ground or a large container. I have more plants to use where I want filler and color, and plants to give away.

So, there you have it. An unusual and beautiful plant from Brazil, with flowers like Chinese lanterns, beloved in Asia, easy to grow here, in the ground or a container, a snap to propagate. It ought to be all the rage, yet hardly anyone knows of it. The plant world is quirky.