All About Abelia, Weigela and Spirea

Abelia X Grandiflora 'Little Richard'
Abelia X Grandiflora 'Little Richard'

Abelia x grandiflora 'Little Richard'

Abelia X Grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope'

Abelia x grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope'

Abelia X Grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope'

Abelia x grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope'

Abelia X Grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope'

Abelia x grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope'

Abelia X Grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope'

Abelia x grandiflora 'Kaleidoscope'

Abelia X Grandiflora 'Little Richard'

Abelia x grandiflora 'Little Richard'

Abelia

Abelias are one of those “what’s old is new again” or “oldie-but-goodie” shrubs that have been around for so long that they’re both tried-and-true and new and exciting. Amazingly, gardeners have been enjoying Abelia for over a century, but only in the past decade or so have compact and variegated forms really taken the spotlight. Why do we like them so much? They’re very trouble-free, rarely contacting disease or pest issues. Their other winning traits are fragrant flowers (it’s light, but detectable) with a long bloom time, being semi-evergreen (which means evergreen in mild winters and not in cold winters) and being decently distasteful to deer. The plant in my yard receives less than full sun and starts blooming about a month after those in full sun do, but still cranks out flowers until early autumn.

I’m one of those people who prefers shrubs in their natural shape rather than “meatballed” into something perfectly rounded and formal, but for those of you that prefer a restrained look, Abelias respond well to shearing. Do the trimming around late winter or early spring so you don’t delay the summer flowers. Typically the only wayward growth is the odd branch that’s an over-achiever and grows about twice the rate of all the branches around it; it gives the shrub something of a “bad hair day” look or of having multiple antennae. If they bother you, they’re easily nipped off with a pair of hand pruners.

Foliage is not always a trait people grow flowering shrubs for – after all, that’s why we call them flowering shrubs – but there are several varieties of Abelia on the market nowadays that boast really pretty multi-hued leaves. The current favorite is ‘Kaleidoscope’ with its lime, yellow and orange-edged leaves; ‘Mardi Gras’ is another variety we like that has more subdued hues of butter, cream and pink. What do you pair such multi-hued plants with that won’t clash? I like the red-purple or red-orange foliage of barberry (the non-invasive kinds, of course) or the blue leaves of ‘Blue Shadow’ fothergilla or a dwarf blue spruce. Dark green, certainly, is always a good foil for such brightness, as is a different texture like the feathery appearance of conifers like juniper or yew.

Weigela Florida 'Carnival'
Weigela Florida 'Carnival'

Weigela florida 'Carnival'

Weigela Florida 'Dark Horse'

Weigela florida 'Dark Horse'

Weigela Florida 'My Monet'

Weigela florida 'My Monet'

Weigela Florida 'My Monet Sunrise'

Weigela florida 'My Monet Sunrise'

Weigela 'Sonic Bloom Pink'

Weigela 'Sonic Bloom Pink'

Weigela 'Tuxedo'

Weigela 'Tuxedo'

Abelia X Grandiflora 'Little Richard'

Abelia x grandiflora 'Little Richard'

Weigela

“Why gee la?” Why not? (That’s the way I remember how to pronounce weigela – there are so many variations!) By any name, though, they’re pretty useful shrubs. Flowers are at peak now in late spring, covering the branches with loads of funnel-shaped flowers in white, pink or red. Many varieties on the market now have colorful foliage – washes of purple, margins of buttery yellow, or cream with blushes of pink. In autumn, all but the purple-leaved forms sport nice colors in the red-orange range. One nice trick is to give older plants a bit of a trim after the flowers have faded; it not only rejuvenates them and tweaks their shape a bit but they will often re-bloom after a few weeks recovery. Not many shrubs will do that! Plus, hummingbirds like the flower shape on weigela, so hopefully yours will be visited by those hyper beauties.

As with Abelia, I’m fond of pairing Weigela with other foliage colors and textures to get the most out of each season. Purple-leaved types look really nice with blue, silver or white-edged foliage; don’t forget grasses, too, as great companions for creating a mix that’s visually appealing and needing minimal care. Red Fountain Grass is an annual that echoes beautifully the color in the purplish weigela, and perennial Panicum varieties that are blue-green in summer and turn red-purple late in the season are also great for providing color blends and echoes. If you want to go with more of a stark contrast in colors, rather than a subdued harmony, try something like a yellow-leaved spirea, juniper or creeping sedum.

Spiraea X Bumalda 'Magic Carpet'
Spiraea X Bumalda 'Magic Carpet'

Spiraea x bumalda 'Magic Carpet'

Spiraea 'Double Play Blue Kazoo'

Spiraea 'Double Play Blue Kazoo'

Spiraea 'Double Play Red'

Spiraea 'Double Play Red'

Spiraea 'Gold Mound'

Spiraea 'Gold Mound'

Spiraea Japonica 'Little Princess'

Spiraea japonica 'Little Princess'

Spiraea Thunbergii 'Ogon'

Spiraea thunbergii 'Ogon'

Spiraea Thunbergii 'Ogon'

Spiraea thunbergii 'Ogon'

Spirea

Spirea, like Weigela and Abelia, has undergone an explosion of new varieties in the past decade. Many have been developed for improved foliage interest, such as colorful new growth, which is at its most intense in spring. Flower color is pretty much limited to white and pink (the “red”-flowering ones are really dark reddish-pink, not truly red, though it is a nice change of pace), but Spirea have the pleasing habit of re-blooming into summer, especially if given a light trim to remove the spent flowers. There’s great diversity in Spirea, with some that grow taller than we are and others that stay quite short; leaf colors ranging from blue-green to bright yellow to red-tipped; spring-bloomers and summer bloomers.

Most are of Asian origin, but we stock the native species when we can find them, and this spring we’ve managed to get a few of both eastern species. Pollinators enjoy Spirea, though it’s not one of their top-ten choices; thankfully, it’s not high on the list of choices for deer, either. Like Abeila and Weigela, they can be long-lived and ask for very little in return for providing so much to the garden.

by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer

This Post Has 10 Comments
  1. In planting any of the above, how deep a hole needs to be prepared? I have the difficult task of rejuvenating a bed that was once home to trees where root networks remain.

  2. Your idea of providing a chart of when to buy, when it’ll bloom is a fantastic idea! So often I, too, have seen something in your gardens that would fit the space in my gardens but it can’t be purchased at that time. One can make a note of what and when to buy, if we can stand waiting a year or so for gratification!

  3. Hi Kamilia,

    We recommend our standard planting instructions for planting any of these shrubs: dig the hole only as deep as the root ball (therefore, it depends on what size pot you buy) and two or more times as wide. This ensures that the soil immediately around the roots is loosened to encourage faster establishment. If the hole gets dug too deeply, there is a risk that the root ball will sink as the soil settles and the roots will then be buried too deeply, which puts them at risk of drowning and/or rot. Our opinion is that compost (like LeafGro) is the best amendment to mix with your native soil when installing new plants. The organic matter in compost helps keep the clay particles from packing together as closely, which causes the compaction that results in poor drainage and poor aeration, which is needed for healthy roots. If existing dead tree roots are in the way, dig as large of a hole as is possible and just be aware that the plants may take a bit longer to adjust and resume rapid growth since their roots will have to find free soil to grow into.

    Miri Talabac
    Woody Plants Buyer
    Behnke Nurseries

  4. Hi Ginger,

    That’s true, unfortunately we can’t stock everything when we want it available to sell since the numerous suppliers we use can have unpredictable offerings from time to time (crop issues, oversold items, shipping delays and so forth). That said, for more obscure or highly seasonal items, it’s a good bet we’d be able to stock it some time between March and May since that’s when we’re the busiest. Although fall is also a great time to plant trees and shrubs, we have fewer shoppers and limited space with which to overwinter leftovers, and thus we don’t bring in as many varieties. If you have specific plants you’d like to ask about availability on, I’m always happy to receive inquiries and will do my best to predict when we might get something in stock that is currently unavailable. A good rule of thumb, though, is that if something’s in season (in flower, or fall color), we’ll have it in stock unless there’s a major shortage of it at the wholesale level.

    I’ve seen a book titled “When Perennials Bloom,” which I like not only in concept but especially since it’s more mid-Atlantic focused. “When Shrubs and Trees Bloom” would be a great companion that I hope someone puts together and publishes some day. Since many shrubs and trees have more than one season of interest, though, I imagine it would be harder to narrow them down to just one peak season of interest.

    Miri

  5. Barbara,

    In my experience, mostly bees, some butterflies (like Swallowtails, since they have longer tongues to reach the nectar) and, as an educated guess based on flower shape, hummingbirds.

    Miri

  6. I’m looking for a companion plant to use as a backdrop for my gold flame spirea… I would like something that keeps its leaves all year… I had cherry laurels in place but 3 of the 5 died suddenly last summer… In front of the gold flame spire a I have Russian sage… Someone recommended gulfstream nandina… All suggestions are welcome… Thx

  7. What about loropetalum. Your gold flame spirea would pop against the burgundy color of the loropetalum. The do need sun and they come in a variety of sizes. And the have a cool fringe flower. .

  8. Hello Brandon,
    I’m sorry to hear that you lost several Cherrylaurels…perhaps they succombed to Peachtree Borer or root-rot, though neither is a terribly common occurrence. If your Spirea are in full sun (which, ideally, they should be) then various other evergreen shrubs could serve as a good backdrop. Loropetalum and Nandina are nice contrast candidates but neither is what we consider to be reliably evergreen – a harsh winter or exposure to too much wind and dry weather in winter can cause defoliation. Depending on factors such as mature height, soil quality and deer-browsing pressures, there is a long list of potential evergreens that include compact varieties of Holly, Euonymus, Pine, Spruce, Juniper, Boxwood, Japanese Cedar, False Cypress, Yew, Plum Yew, Yucca, False-holly, and probably a few other things.
    – Miri

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