Illuminating many a warm-weather garden in the United States, the Chinese lantern, a plant belonging to the genus Abutilon, comes in many shapes and forms. With maple-like leaves and colorful five-petaled flowers that resemble hanging lanterns (hence the common name), this group of plants consists of small trees, shrubs, and vines. However, their name is a little misleading, as they aren't solely Asiatic in origin. In fact, there are about 200 species in the Abutilon genus.
Mostly native to South America, these plants have also been known to grow in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Australia. Several species are native to the American Southwest and Mexico, as well. In warmer climates, their perennial evergreen shrubs are grown for their colorful flowers and quick growth rates. In cooler zones, the shrubs are grown as annuals, both indoors and in pots outdoors. If you tried to grow them in the ground in these places, they probably wouldn't survive the cold winter months.
What’s in a Name?
The genus name Abutilon comes from the Arabic word “aubutilun.” It was given to the plants by a Persian physician and astronomer named Avicenna (c. 980 — 1037), a man who is often described as the father of early modern medicine. Avicenna was also a prolific scholar, philosopher, astronomer, and writer in his time (a period known as the "Islamic Golden Age"). Two of his better-known compositions are the Book of Healing, an encyclopedia of philosophical and scientific concepts, and The Canon of Medicine, which recounts the history of medicine up to that time.
Features of Abutilon
Plants in the Abutilon genus typically grow to around 10 feet tall. Abutilon shrubs and trees can either be multi-stemmed or grow from a single stem, with multi-stem growth being more desirable when growing garden screens and hedges. Their leaves can be simple with entire margins or lobed like a maple's with palmate venation. They usually have dense hairs, although some species have thinner ones than others. Some cultivated varieties even have variegated leaves — another feature that makes these plants so attractive to gardeners.
Unfortunately, whiteflies are capable of spreading a virus known as the Abutilon mosaic virus is to these plants. This disease causes golden-yellow spots to develop on their otherwise green leaves. Infestations of whiteflies can be controlled with a soapy, non-toxic insecticidal spray or some gentle scrubbing.
Above all else, the members of the Abutilon group are admired for their colorful, hibiscus-like flowers. The flowers of A. pictum, also known as Redvein Abutilon, have short, bell-shaped calyces and five long, broad petals joined at their bases. These flowers are lantern-shaped and (among wild species) can be yellow, orange, or occasionally red or pinkish in color. They all have pronounced venation on their petals. Their stamens are fused into a single long tube and, along with the stigmas, project themselves outside of the confines of the flowers' showy petals. Abutilon flowers can grow alone, in pairs, or in small clusters and are a summer delight.
Chinese lanterns do best in humus-rich, well-drained soil, but they can also grow in different environments depending on the location. For instance, A. halophilum, as known as the Plain Lantern Flower, thrives in heavy clay soils with high salinity, such as the saltbush communities in Australia.
Different Abutilon species also require different amounts of light. In hot climates, these plants actually do better in full shade than they do in direct sunlight. They really like moist soils and hate drying out, so regular watering during the growing season is essential for good growth. Gardeners should cut back on watering in any areas that receive extensive winter rains to prevent these plants from being oversaturated.
While there are over 200 species in the Abutilon genus, there are many hybrids in that group. Abutilon x hybridum, also known as Flowering Maple, is a popular "frost-tender" mix of A. darwnii, A. striatum, and A. pictum that prefers warmer climates and can grow anywhere from eight to 10 feet tall. The hybrid "Bartley Schwartz" has salmon-orange-colored flowers, while A. palmeri has yellowish ones.
Who’s Who in Abutilon?
Gardeners will recognize some of famous botanists associated with certain Abutilon species. A. darwinii, or Indian mallow, is a Chinese Lantern species from Brazil with pinkish-red flowers and large, broad leaves. Named after Charles Darwin by Joseph Hooker, this species was collected during Darwin’s iconic voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. Palmer’s Indian mallow, or A. palmeri, is a species native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico that has brilliant yellow flowers. This species is named after Edward Palmer (1831-1911), an English immigrant who collected botanical samples extensively in the American Southwest. Their grayish leaves feel like velvet when touched. This species is often specifically cultivated for garden restoration projects. A. wrightii, named after Charles Wright (1811-1885), is a low-growing species found in Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas that also has striking yellow flowers.
Uses for Abutilon
Indian mallow was used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a litany of illnesses, including nervous disorders, headaches, bleeding problems, and gonorrhea. All parts of the plant were used.
While it depends largely upon location, Abutilon plants are now mostly grown for their colorful flowers and thick foliage. In certain areas, they can become invasive, so gardeners should always to do their best to monitor and contain those species. Those grown in warmer climates can form multiple stems with dense foliage and make great privacy screens or thickets. Others that are more vine-like in nature can be trained to climb trellises or arbors for some extra summer shade. Many Abutilon species also attract hummingbirds and butterflies, meaning they're both a colorful addition to the garden and a pollinator-friendly flower.