The list of neat plants I want to tell you about keeps getting longer, so it’s about time to have a crack at checking off a few of them. First up, a must-have shrub for those who swoon over scented plants: Abelia mosanensis, known variously as hardy abelia, fragrant abelia, and bridal veil.
You may already be familiar with its better-known cousin, glossy abelia (A. x grandiflora): a multi-stemmed, semi-evergreen or deciduous shrub with small, pink-to-white flowers that appear through much of the growing season. Glossy abelia isn’t a “wow” plant, because the blooms are small and scattered along the stems, but its long bloom period, light scent, and purplish fall color do garner it some fans among those looking for multi-season shrubs.
Hardy abelia has a much shorter flowering period – usually about three weeks in May here in southeastern Pennsylvania – but it’s much more noticeable, loaded with clusters of rosy pink buds opening to pinkish white blooms.
You don’t need to see it to know when it starts flowering, however, because the rich scent carries for quite a distance. (I’ve noticed it from a good 30 feet away.) The exact scent is hard to describe: not sweet or fruity, but pleasingly perfumey: something like a lilac, if I remember correctly, or perhaps a daphne.
Hardy abelia blooms at the same time as many spring classics, including purple alliums, bearded irises, bluestars (Amsonia), columbines (Aquilegia), hardy geraniums, and hybrid tulips, so there are lots of opportunities for creating combinations that are a treat to smell as well as to see.
To be fair, hardy abelia isn’t much to look at once it’s done flowering: the habit is kind of rangy, and the foliage is not distinctive, though a nice deep green and seemingly not much bothered by pests, diseases, or drought stress. In fall, it offers another great show, in the form of glowing orangey red fall color before the leaves drop.
Hardy abelia reaches about 6 feet tall and wide. I occasionally remove one or two stems at the base right after flowering to keep it from blocking a path but otherwise leave it alone. (Trying to keep it smaller by cutting the stems back partway makes the whole plant look really ugly.) Granted, that’s a fair bit of garden space to give a once-blooming shrub, but in that respect, it’s not all that much different than a lilac or forsythia, with the added advantage of the splendid fall color. Hardy abelia is reportedly hardy in Zones 4 to 9 and is available from a number of mail-order sources, including Bluestone Perennials and Dancing Oaks Nursery.
If hardy abelia is charming and cottage-gardeny, the next two neat plants are the exact opposite: off-putting and edgy, in an anti-social sort of way. Still, they’re intriguing and worth a bit of bother, if you have a taste for the unusual.
Solanum atropurpureum, commonly known as purple devil or malevolence, looks rather like a nasty weed from more than a few feet away. Up close, it looks even nastier.
Maybe that’s a little too close, but you get the point, right? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) You don’t grow purple devil for its small, tomato-like flowers…
…or for its small, unshowy, green-ripening-to-yellow-orange fruits…
…or for its deeply cut, glossy green leaves…
…but for its stunningly spined, deep purple stems.
Purple devil reaches 3 to 4 feet tall, first growing straight up and then branching toward the tips.
The spines are evident when the seedlings are just a few inches high, but fortunately, they’re still soft enough then that it’s not too unpleasant to move the plants to individual pots. I set them out into the garden when there’s no chance of frost. By that time, the spines are getting harder, so wearing gloves is a good idea. And at cleanup time, I recommend heavy leather gloves and long-handled loppers. In between, you won’t have much reason to touch the plants, but it’s irresistibly tempting to try at least once.
Seeds of purple devil are available from Plant World Seeds.
Another option for an impressive spinal display is Solanum quitoense: naranjilla or bed-of-nails.
Its spines aren’t as dense as those of purple devil, but they’re displayed on big, broad leaves that make quite a statement in a border or container.
The 3- to 4-foot-tall stems are spiny too, but it’s hard to see them because of the dense foliage. The flowers are also mostly hidden, but they’re not showy anyway.
They’re followed by fuzzy fruits that are said to be very tasty, but so far, I’ve never had the fruit ripen here.
As with purple devil, the seedlings are spiny even when young, and you want to get them in their final spots as quickly as possible so you don’t have to be working around those spines when the leaves get big.
There are apparently two versions of naranjilla: one with spines (sometimes listed as S. quitoense var. septentrionale) and one without (S. quitoense var. quitoense). The seeds I’ve gotten in the past from the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group’s Seed Exchange have always produced the spiny kind shown here.
One online source of seed for the spiny naranjilla is The Banana Tree. Trade Winds Fruit doesn’t mention spines in their description of the seeds, so I imagine they sell the spineless kind. Annie’s Annuals and Logee’s show the spineless one on their sites, but plants are currently not available from either source. I can see that spineless naranjilla would be very appealing as a foliage accent, though you lose the quirkiness value without those splendid spikes.
For even more spiny goodness, consider Solanum pyracanthum too. I covered it in an earlier Neat Plants post, which you can find here.
[A final note, which applies to all plant sources I mention in my posts: I have no affiliation with the commercial plant and seed sources I link to and receive no compensation from them. I find most of them through Google searches and offer them just to be helpful.]