Abutilon, commonly called flowering maple because its lobed leaves vaguely resemble maple leaves, is a genus of small, upright shrubs or tender perennials with soft, arching stems, originally from Brazil. Actually, abutilons have no connection to maple trees at all; they are related instead to hibiscus, mallows and tall rose of Sharon. Many hybrids have been bred with colorful flowers, and some have leaves spotted in yellow or white.
Abutilon flowers are bell-shaped and 2 to 3 inches long, with veined petals hanging down on drooping stems. Colors range from white through yellow, orange, salmon, coral and mauve to red, and in good conditions, a plant may bloom for months. When selecting plants, choose bushy specimens with lots of side shoots, which hold the promise of more flowers. The hanging flowers have given abutilon another common name, Chinese lantern.
Abutilons can grow to be 10 feet tall and wide. Indoors, they frequently need pruning to keep them to a manageable size and control their tendency to get gangly. Prune in early spring or late fall. When starting with a young plant, prune stem tips to encourage the plant to branch and form a bushy shape. Cut a plant back hard in spring to control its size. Cut back spindly new growth, remove thin shoots that may crowd the plant's center, and reduce other branches by a third. Because abutilons flower best on new growth, pruning encourages the plant to bloom.
You can also prune abutilon to a tree shape, with a single trunklike stem that doesn't branch until 2 or 3 feet up, if you desire. This can be attractive in a container.
Repotting in a larger pot will encourage growth, so keep plants slightly root-bound to keep them a manageable size.
Light and Warmth
Abutilons like bright light with some direct sun, which helps them bloom and also improves the leaf color on varieties with mottled leaves. They can droop and look sickly in too much hot sun. Indoors, abutilons prefer temperatures in the 70s with 60s at night.
If grown outdoors in warm-weather regions, plants may go dormant in winter if temperatures go down to the 40s and 50s. Abutilons will die at freezing temperatures, so bring plants indoors before frost.
Through the growing season, abutilons like consistently moist but well-drained soil. Don't let plants dry out; the soil surface should always feel moist to the touch. But don't let them sit in water, or they can rot. For containers, choose a soil mix that drains quickly.
As jungle plants, abutilons like humidity and appreciate having their leaves misted, especially when they've just been moved indoors. Heated and air conditioned indoor air is generally much drier than outside air, and misting will help the plants adjust.
Because they bloom so much, abutilons in containers need fertilizer to replenish soil nutrients. Use a weak fertilizer diluted with water every two weeks through the growing season. Fertilizer with a high middle number (for example, 5-10-5) is the best choice, as this formula promotes flower production rather than foliage or roots. Do not fertilize abutilons when their growth slows down in winter. In general, too little (or no) fertilizer is better than too much.