Gardening Australia

merry & BRIGHT

Add some festive cheer to your garden this Christmas – or any time of year in warmer climates – with a delightful Chinese lantern, writes STEVE FALCIONI


With their maple-shaped leaves and nodding flowers in white, yellow, orange, red or pink, there’s much to love about Chinese lanterns. Belonging to the genus Abutilon, these evergreen shrubs are incredibly generous bloomers, particular­ly through spring to autumn. Each flower features a cute cap at the top (that’s the calyx) and large petals underneath it. These petals are clustered in a lantern shape, which gives rise to the common name. In warm climates, flowering extends right through winter, so it’s like having Christmas decoration­s up all year!

There are roughly 200 Abutilon species distribute­d across tropical and subtropica­l regions around the globe, but only a few have lantern-shaped flowers. Most of those sold in nurseries are complex hybrids referred to as Abutilon x hybridum, and picking apart their actual genealogy is a feat beyond us mere mortals. Thanks to this complex crossbreed­ing, though, we have plenty of choice, not only in flower and leaf colour (variegated forms are available), but also size. There are now

plants that grow more than 3m tall and dwarf cultivars that stay under 1m.

Given their diversity, Chinese lanterns can be used in varying ways in the garden. Taller varieties work well at the back of garden beds to add colour and structure, or you can group them together to make an informal screening hedge. Medium and small growers can be mixed in among perennials for long-lasting floral displays. Pots on balconies and patios are also an option for smaller types. And there are even grafted standards available, which look fantastic in more formal settings.

care & maintenanc­e

There are a few things you need to do to get the growing conditions just right for Chinese lanterns. They are sun-lovers, and thrive in fertile, free-draining soils. In regions with hot, arid summers, water well and provide afternoon shade to stop them looking a little ‘cooked’. If your soil is on the poor side, work in some compost and aged manure before planting. While establishe­d plants are fairly resilient to drying out, they do best in moist soils, so keep them mulched, and be prepared to water more during dry summers. Potted plants definitely need regular watering.

These plants are generally sensitive to frost when they’re young, but they can handle light frost once establishe­d. In regions with very cold winters, stick to growing them in containers, which you can move into a sheltered spot, or even take indoors, during winter.

Chinese lanterns have a reputation for being open and leggy plants. To prevent this happening, tip-prune the plants while young – this encourages branching and dense growth. Establishe­d plants should be pruned back to the previous year’s growth in late winter or early spring.

Despite their never-ending show of flowers, Chinese lanterns aren’t especially hungry plants. A top dressing of compost, manure or organic pellets in early spring, just after pruning, is usually enough to keep them happy. Potted plants and young plants can be fed every 2–3 months to get more value out of them.

If you want to have a go at propagatin­g new plants, take semi-ripe cuttings in late summer and autumn. In warmer regions, this can extend into winter.

Pest-wise, they’re usually trouble free. Aphids and caterpilla­rs might sometimes have a chomp; if it’s a bad outbreak, spray with neem oil. In warmer regions, metallic flea beetles may also make a few holes, but they rarely set back the plant.

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