Guaranteed Butterflies with Chinese Abelia

Chinese Abelia flower cluster with friend

Many flowers are known as excellent butterfly attractors, and I grow many of them. Native butterfly magnets are especially good, because they not only provide nectar for adults, but food for the caterpillar forms of these winged beauties.

Because I do provide many diverse native food plants, I don’t feel guilty for finding a place for the all-time winner of the Butterfly Magnet Award: Chinese Abelia (Abelia chinensis). This shrub begins blooming in my Piedmont NC garden in early June. Right now, despite record heat and searing drought, it is at peak bloom — completely covered in clusters of pinkish-white, sweetly fragrant flowers that weigh down the branch tips, causing the blooming shrub to have an almost weeping plant form.

The size of my mature specimen (eight feet high and six feet wide) is impressive enough in full bloom. But what makes it breathtaking are the zillions of pollinators that dance among the flowers from dawn to dusk. The flowers of this shrub reliably attract many more butterflies than the so-called Butterfly Bushes (Buddleia spp.). Often so many butterflies are fluttering among the flowers that the entire shrub appears to be moving as their colorful bodies float across it. Bees and sphinx moths love these flowers too. In fact, it’s hard for me to grab a morning sniff of perfume from a flower without disturbing some kind of pollinator that’s beaten me to the goods.

This is a big shrub, and its form is not what I would call elegant. But if you have a sunny spot big enough to accommodate it in your Piedmont garden — and you love butterflies — this is a plant you’ll want for your yard. Blooms appear on new growth, so you can prune it in early spring quite severely if you need to. I have hacked my poor shrub more than once, and its shape is consequently a tad odd, but the butterflies and other pollinators don’t seem to mind. This is what the entire shrub looks like as it guards the gate to my vegetable garden:

Abelia chinensis

See how the flower clusters weigh down the branch tips? As the flowers finish, the sepals persist, turning from green to a rosy mauve color. The sepals persist in the clusters through late fall. From a distance, it almost looks as if it’s still blooming even in November. I like to clip a few of these sepal clusters to add to fall flower arrangements.

Flowers will continue to appear as long as the shrub is adding new growth. In wet summers (those long-ago times), my shrub stays covered in flowers until frost. During this dry, hot summer, growth has nearly stopped, and flower production appears to be waning. My shrub gets no supplemental water, and still it produces its sweet flower clusters.

As heat and drought are becoming the new norms for summer Piedmont weather, plants that can flourish under such conditions become increasingly important. Chinese Abelia has proven its merit in my yard. The butterflies and I agree: summer would be incomplete without this spectacular bloomer.

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