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Abelia: A Landscape Plant Made for Droughts

If you live in an area where drought and water restrictions put a damper on your landscape each year, Abelia may be the perfect plant for you.

"Abelia is an extremely tough plant," said Carol Robacker, a research horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"It grows fast, and it's insect-, disease- and drought-resistant," she said. "I've seen Abelia blooming in the middle of the summer with no water in a full sun location."

Like any plant, you first have to allow its root system to establish. But after that, Abelia is a hands-off, independent kind of plant.

"You basically don't have to water it," Robacker said. "It survives in very tough environments without being watered, other than when it rains."

Abelia, also known as "glossy Abelia," is a hedge-type shrub typically used for foundation planting around commercial buildings and homes. It's a semi-evergreen that grows 8 to 10 feet tall.

Abelia has small, bell-shaped flowers from May until the first frost. It's a member of the honeysuckle family. The most common cultivars are "Edward Goucher" (purple flowers), "Confetti" (white flowers and a white margin on leaves) and "Francis Mason" (white flowers and yellow variegated leaves).

So if Abelia is so wonderful, why aren't more people planting it?

"It could use some aesthetic improvements," said Michele Scheiber, a UGA graduate student. "The flowers are very small, so much so that many people don't realize the plant has flowers. You have to walk right up to the plant to see them."

To increase Abelia's popularity, UGA horticulturist Michael Dirr has started a breeding program. Robacker and Scheiber are breeding new varieties in their Griffin, Ga., greenhouses and labs.

"We need to make the plant more attractive so people will use it more," Scheiber said. "To do this, we need more flower-color choices. And the plant needs to be more compact."

To make prettier, smaller abelias, Scheiber is crossing the current cultivars with species common to Mexico and Japan.

"The Mexican abelia produces large, magenta flowers," Scheiber said. "This species is very attractive and grows more like a vine than a bush."

On the downside, the Mexican abelia is not cold-hardy and may not survive winter temperatures in middle to north Georgia.

The Japanese species, A. Serrata, has yellow blossoms. Scheiber has made some successful plant crosses using glossy Abelia and the Mexican and Japanese species. But it will take years of research to develop new Abelia varieties.

Until then, the current varieties may not be flashy plants, but they're definitely hardy. "Around here, we call Abelia the gas station plant," Robacker said. "You could plant it beside a gas station surrounded by asphalt and forget about it, and it would still survive and thrive."

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

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