Abutilon flowers: Bauhaus lamp shades

Chinese lnatern (Abutilon hybridum)

Chinese lnatern (Abutilon hybridum)

Living in Los Angeles is really a hoot if you’re into horticulture.
Here we are, approaching December’s end, and plants are blooming like it’s springtime.
Just the other day, out for a walk around the block, I noticed that floribunda and miniature roses were flowering, as well as several ornamental sage (salvia) species, ivy geraniums, yellow wallflowers (erysimum x allionii) and, most satisfying of all, flowering maples (abutilon).
There’s something about abutilon (a-BEW-ti-lon). It is commonly referred to as flowering maple or Chinese lantern. Its foliage resembles that of the maple and its flowers are perfect Bauhaus lamp shades, underhanging light bulbs included.  Abuitilon can take more sun and less water than you might think.  Once established, it should never need more than once a week watering.
In truth, abutilon has no botanical relationship with the maple but is, in fact, a cousin of hibiscus. The color range of hibiscus and abutilon is comprehensive, including red, pink, orange, yellow and white.
Unlike hibiscus, abutilon requires some sun protection. Yet abutilon is a bit more cold-tolerant. In the aftermath of last January’s freeze, hibiscuses died even while abutilons planted close by survived.
Last week, I wrote about cold-climate lilacs (Syringa species) that have been hybridized to bloom in warm winter areas such as the Valley. I was reminded this past week that our own native California lilacs (Ceanothus species) start blooming in December.
California lilacs, once established, do not require water other than winter rain. Yet, unlike many dusty and musky drought-tolerant species, Ceanothus has a lush green leaf. Ceanothus includes low-growing cultivars that hug hillsides and sloping front or backyards alike.
With water-rationing around the corner, the thought of substituting ceanothus for lawn grass, especially in front yards that are just for show in any case, makes sense. In years gone by, dull and prickly junipers were used as a drought-tolerant, woody perennial ground cover, sometimes as a lawn substitute. Keep in mind that wherever junipers grow well, ceanothus will, too.
Ceanothus flowers were used by the Chumash Indians as hand soap. If you rub them between your palms, you will appreciate their aromatic and cleansing properties.
Ceanothus flowers are decorous wands in every shade of blue, from baby to navy. There are groundcover, shrub and arboreal ceanothus cultivars. White flowers occasionally are seen on the taller types.
If you plant ceanothus, give each specimen plenty of room. Ceanothus plants do not like to be crowded. I have also found that pruning them in any significant way is not to their liking and often leads to stem die- back.
This also can be said of manzanita (arctostaphylos), the other signature California native woody perennial, known for its comely urn-shaped flowers, glabrous and leathery leaves, and cinnamon bark. In contrast to ceanothus, manzanita is a slow grower. The beauty of having both ceanothus and manzanita around, in addition to their ornamental qualities, is that you really don’t have to do anything except watch them grow.

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