A densely-branched semi-evergreen shrub to 2 m tall, deciduous in colder climates. Shoots densely reddish pubescent, rarely glabrous. Leaves ovate to elliptic, 0.5–5 × 0.4–3 cm, base rounded, tip acute, shiny, glabrous or with scattered hairs beneath, and often with white tufts under the vein-axils; margin with 2–12 depressed minute teeth on each side; petiole 1–4 mm, downy. Flowers paired (flowering consecutively), fragrant, opening from August and continuing into winter in a milder climate. Pedicels 3–4 mm, minutely pubescent and with a pair of reduced bracts. Calyx lobes 5, subequal, lanceolate to slightly spoon-shaped, 3–5 × 1–3 mm, green then reddish. Corolla almost regular, bell-shaped, white to pale pink and unmarked, 7–12 mm long; lobes 5, subequal, ovate, minutely hairy outside and with stiff hairs on the lower lip. Nectary gland quite conspicuous as a pouch under the base of the corolla tube. Stamens 4, much longer than the corolla tube. Filaments 4–8 mm long, hairy in the lower part; anthers at first bluish-pink. Style 7–15 mm. Fruit 4 mm long, crowned with persistent and slightly enlarged sepals, ripening October–November. (Landrein & Farjon 2020; Flora of China 2021).
Distribution China Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang. Japan Ryukyu Islands Taiwan
Habitat Mountain forests to 1500 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Abelia chinensis is the most widely distributed of its genus; its range covers a great swathe of China and extends south-westwards to the mountainous border with Vietnam (as var. lipoensis (M.T. An & G.Q. Gou) Landrein) and it is the only Abelia to have spread eastwards (as var. hanceana (M. Martens ex Hance) Landrein) into Taiwan and the Japanese Ryukyu islands (Landrein & Farjon 2020); Landrein and Farjon also recognise var. aschersoniana (Graebn.) Landrein, endemic to Hong Kong. The species as a whole is distinct in its small but profusely borne flowers which are usually white, strongly scented, and can continue through autumn.
Abelia chinensis was cultivated in Europe by 1846 (Edwards & Marshall 2019) and is hardy across the UK, though it needs plenty of summer heat to flower well and thrive and is best under a south-facing wall in most locations. In the south-eastern United States it is fully deciduous (Dirr 2009), the leaves falling without colour. In coastal gardens it is moderately salt tolerant (Stewart 2021). As a garden plant in the west it has now been almost entirely eclipsed by its hybrids with A. uniflora (A. × grandiflora). A. chinensis did receive the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2009 – but this was for a clone (‘China Rose’) which may not have been commercially available since 2015 (Royal Horticultural Society 2021).) The species is still commonly cultivated in China itself (Flora of China 2021).
A selection with pale pastel pink flowers, attractively backed by soft mauve (sepals); it was awarded the RHS’s Award of Garden Merit in 2009 but no longer seems commercially available in the UK (Royal Horticultural Society 2020).
Synonyms / alternative names
Abelia chinensis RUBY ANNIVERSARY™
A clone found in 2002 by Susan Keiser, a garden designer from New York, and available in the United States since 2011. The fairly upright young stems are burgundy red; the foliage also has a reddish cast and contrasts prettily with the pure white flowers (Hatch 2021–2022). RUBY ANNIVERSARY™ is occasionally sold as a clone of Abelia × grandiflora.
A vigorous upright selection with abundant, highly scented flowers, available in the United States from Balls Ornamentals since 2012 (Hatch 2021–2022).