When you first spy the leaves of a flowering maple plant (Abutilon spp.), you'll think it's some type of maple tree. Catch a glimpse of the dainty, five-petaled flower among those maple leaves, and you realize it certainly is not a true maple (Acer spp.). Over 150 species of flowering maples exist, all of which don't respond well to prolonged freezing winter temperatures. Whether maturing as trees, shrubs or more seasonal perennial or annual herbs, grow them as house plants if you don't live in USDA hardiness zone 8 or warmer.
While scores of different species of flowering maples exist, most gardeners encounter only a few species and then dozens of hybrids derived from various breeding crosses among them. The trailing abutilon (Abutilon megapotamicum) from Brazil is winter hardy into the mildest areas of USDA zone 7 and warmer. Frost knocks back foliage and stems to the ground, but new growth sprouts each spring with pendent heart-shaped flowers by summer. Another species of note is Abutilon pictum, also listed as Abutilon striatum in some literature. Its flowers are bell-shaped and pendent.
Flowering maples' most ornate feature among all the species is the flowers. Looking like hibiscus blossoms, they are usually bell-, cup- or bowl-shaped and appear in the branches, emanating from the leaf stem bases during warm weather from spring to autumn. Their flower petals range from white, pink, red, yellow and orange to variations of those as well as contrasting colors in the petal veins. Leaves may be entire blades or more often attractively shaped with three, five or seven lobes, mimicking the look of a real maple leaf. Some selections of flowering maple bear variegated leaves with white, yellow and green coloration.
Grow all flowering maples in a fertile, well-draining soil where they will receive at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. Soil should remain consistently moist from spring to fall when new growth and flowers appear. In hot or arid climates, dappled shade in the heat of the afternoon keeps plants from wilting. Water flowering maples less in winter in frost-free climates. If grown as indoor house plants, water and fertilize freely from spring to early autumn and reduce watering and stop fertilizing across the winter months when sunlight is not intense.
Rust and abutilon mosaic virus occur in many flowering maples, affecting the integrity of their leaves and petals. Moreover, high humidity, overly wet soils and poor air circulation can lead to bouts with leaf spots caused by Alternaria and Cercospora fungi. Indoors, many more insect pests may arise, including whiteflies, spider mites, scale and mealybugs.
Deciduous flowering maples can be pruned back hard each early spring to allow for rejuvenating stems to sprout and grow across the summer and fall. Evergreen species tend to produce flowers on older stems, so only lightly tip prune stems in mid to late spring, if at all. Plants grown more for their ornately colored leaves can be pruned more heavily than if flowers are also desired. To propagate flowering maples, sow seed in spring when soil temperatures range between 59 and 64 degrees F or make green softwood cuttings in summer, according to the "A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants."