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UGA researcher sends new abelia plants to market

By April Sorrow
University of Georgia

Abelias are perfect for Southern landscapes. The drought-tolerant, disease- and insect-resistant evergreen shrub thrives in Georgia’s climate. Thanks to a University of Georgia plant breeder, gardeners and landscapers will soon have four new stunning varieties to choose from.

“Abelias are everywhere,” said Carol Robacker, a horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “They have virtually no pests, grow during drought conditions and some varieties will bloom from May until frost.”

In their natural state, abelias can grow 10 feet tall and have a wild, free-form structure. Flowers are small and not very fragrant.

“The nice thing about breeding abelia is its tremendous variability. There are huge differences among seedlings,” she said.

In her Griffin laboratory, Robacker has spent the past decade breeding varieties that are compact, fragrant and full of blooms, making them more attractive for use in the landscape. A member of the honey-suckle family, the abelia’s sweet, floral fragrance was one attribute she wanted to emphasize.

“We were breeding against some of the wildness,” she said. “Selecting compact growth, fragrant flowers and great foliage color, we have made them stunningly beautiful.”

The new varieties are as follows:

Cloud 99 billows with fragrant white blooms all summer. Reaching a height of 4.5 feet tall, the emerald-green foliage contrasts against the crisp white blooms, creating a cloud-like appearance. The variety has exceptional drought tolerance and survives 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Plum Surprise’s leaves and stems are worth watching. The leaves go from yellow-green and purple in March and April to emerald-green in May, eventually turning crimson in autumn. New stems are bright red before developing a brown cast with age. The purple beauty has an unusual weeping shape that grows to be 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Relatively light on blooms, flowers are scattered individually or in pairs and are pale yellow with purple blush. It’s extremely drought- and heat- resistant.

Raspberry Profusion blooms early and with force. An abundance of fragrant raspberry flowers bloom in early May. By mid-June it’s completely covered in pink. The emerald leaves are evergreen and hardy to 6 degrees below zero. This plant can grow to be 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

Lavender Mist gets its name from its mist-like glossy blue-green leaves and fragrant lavender blooms. It’s unique among abelias. Blooms appear in mid-June and stay until autumn, with flushes in June and August. With a slightly sweeping structure, it grows to 5.5 feet tall and more than 9 feet wide.

Ball Horticultural Company holds the license for Plum Surprise, Raspberry Profusion and Lavender Mist. For more information or locations, visit the Web site www.ballhort.com.

“There is a lot yet to be done with this species,” Robacker said. “The biggest limiting factor is people don’t know what it is, so they don’t ask for it, and don’t use it”.

Abelias don’t require much maintenance, but do need at least six hours of sunlight a day. Rainwater usually provides enough water. Every two years, cut abelias back to knee height to keep the blooms heavy and the shape compact.

(April Sorrow is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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