There is a very interesting subtropical shrub known as flowering maple that can be grown as a houseplant. Common names also include Chinese bellflower, Chinese lantern and Indian mallow. The plant is a member of the Abutilon genus, not the Acer genus, which contains maple trees. It is called flowering maple because the plant’s leaves are similar in appearance to maple leaves. It is commonly found in subtropical areas such as South and Central America, where it grows as a perennial.
Abutilon is a large group of more than 200 species of flowering plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae). The mallow family includes well-known plants like cotton, hibiscus, hollyhock, okra, rose of Sharon and the marsh mallows found in wetlands. The flowering maple has blooms similar in shape to hibiscus flowers.
Flowering maples were considered an old-fashioned plant that fell out of favor with gardeners. They were popular during the Victorian era, hence another name, parlor maple. These flowering plants were first among the “softer” plants grown in chilly Victorian parlors. I came across the plant in October 2018 when my wife, Linda, and I were on a tour of the Biltmore Estate Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina. A couple of different cultivars of the flowering maple were in the Biltmore greenhouse, including an heirloom variety that Biltmore had bred, named Biltmore Ballgown.
As a result of extensive breeding efforts, a variety of beautiful cultivars have been produced with lovely bell-shaped flowers in orange, salmon, red, white, yellow and bicolored hues. The generally solitary, pendant flowers are borne on long stems from leaf axils or near the branch tips on the current season’s growth. The flowering maple’s lantern-like buds open to cup- or bell-shaped flowers that may be up to 3 inches in diameter.
Some of the cultivars also have variegated foliage, and it is interesting to note this variegation is a result of a virus that does not harm the plant. The Abutilon mosaic virus is transmitted by seed, grafting and the Brazilian whitefly.
Abutilons are an easy plant to grow indoors. For this use, I would recommend the smaller cultivars. Light requirements range from full sun to very light shade. Flowering maples need a well-drained, peat-based potting soil. They do not require fertilization over the winter. Watering requirements indoors are to keep the soil slightly moist, but do not overwater. Usually, only a monthly watering is needed during the winter. They tend to get rangy. So, to prevent this from happening, pinch the tops of the branches in the spring to encourage a more compact habit.
Besides being grown as a houseplant, these shrub-like plants also can be used as an annual in the landscape and as container plants during the warm growing season in our area, where they will bloom from June through October. If you want to grow the plant as an annual, it does well in full sun to partial shade. It also can be employed in hanging baskets. Most species require moderate watering, although some need a little more moisture.
You can enjoy flowering maples inside and out by growing it as a container patio plant during warm months and then bringing it in to overwinter as a houseplant. As for temperature, these plants prefer a cooler room during the winter.
There are several Abutilon cultivars available, including Canary Bird, Fireball, Boule de Neige, Kirsten’s Pink, the Bella series and Kentish Belle. If you are interested in speckled and variegated foliage plants, look for cultivars A. striatum thompsonii or Souvenir de Bonn.
Flowering maples are not known to have any significant insect or disease problems outdoors in the landscape. However, inside as a houseplant, it can become susceptible to the usual list of houseplant pests, such as aphids, mealybugs, scales, whiteflies, and spider mites. If one of these pests shows up on the plant, treat it as you would usually treat a houseplant pest.
If you would like to propagate, the plant easily will root from stem-tip cuttings. A rooting hormone will increase your chances of success. Take cuttings in the spring and place in seed-starting soil in a warm, bright room.
When young, flowering maples tend to grow fast. As a result, they may need to be repotted a couple times a year. Older flowering maples tend to do better being somewhat pot-bound, as this tends to encourage them to grow more vigorously and have a better bloom set.
– Marc Teffeau, a retired professor and horticulture specialist with the University of Maryland Extension, has been a Holly Springs resident for nine years and a Cherokee County Master Gardener since 2015.