Dear Readers, as I wander the dry and dusty streets of East Finchley there is one plant that I can usually hear from several metres away, as it is usually covered in bees, and that’s the abelia. There is one outside my friend A’s house which is actually more of a small tree at this point (and none the worse for it) and there is another, smaller shrub on Summerlee Avenue. Both of them have a delicious scent, to my nose midway between jasmine and honeysuckle, and the latter perfume is not surprising, as abelia are members of the honeysuckle family. The genus includes about 30 species and hybrids. Some are evergreen, and some are deciduous, but the plant occurs in two distinct ranges, with some coming from Mexico and Central America, and others coming from Asia (Japan west to the Himalayas). In both areas, the tropical species keep their leaves all year round, while those in temperate areas lose theirs.
My Gardening for Wildlife book (by Adrian Thomas) waxes lyrical about both the forms of abelia pictured above, but rates the Chinese abelia slightly higher because of its ‘pulling power’ for butterflies. Both are said to need a sheltered and sunny spot, and clearly they do well on London’s clay soil.
Abelia is named after Clarke Abel, a naturalist and surgeon who accompanied Lord Amherst on his diplomatic mission to China in 1816-17. While Lord Amherst was being diplomatic, Abel was collecting the seeds of the plant that would bear his name. Alas, on the trip home Abel’s ship was attacked by pirates and subsequently wrecked, so he lost all of his prized plants. Fortunately, he had left some abelia with a friend in Canton, and these were eventually returned to him in the UK.
Abel was also the first European to report the presence of orang-utans on Sumatra, and the animal also now bears his name.
And Abel was also the first European to report on the existence of the Tibetan antelope, or Chiru. This vanishingly-rare animal was driven almost to extinction because of its soft, warm underfur, which is woven into highly-prized shawls known as Shahtoosh in areas of Kashmir.
Medicinally, abelia has been used in India to treat blood in the urine – the seeds are boiled in buffalo milk and the resulting concoction is drunk daily for three days. The roots are thought to have anti-bacterial properties.
Although I can see no real evidence of abelia being edible, the flowers are certainly sold, vacuum-packed, for 8 euros, and can be used for salads, cocktails, desserts etc etc. The flowers are said to taste slightly of honey which is not surprising, considering how nectar-rich they are.
I keep reading that Abelia is symbolic of equality in Mexico, but this is one of those Wikipedia statements that just goes round and round with no source material ever cited, so it would be interesting to find out how accurate it is. However, one thing that has become abundantly clear is that Abelia is a very popular girl’s name, and this has wreaked havoc with my attempts to find a poem that actually mentions the plant, rather than being written by an Abelia. But then, I found this, by Robin Davidson, a poet who teaches Creative Writing in Houston. See what you think.
Where do we go from here, where will the light across the cornice
of our love lead us, you and I, after the carnal breath?
Amaryllis and orchid tree, abelia and hawthorne, bougainvillea trailing
thorns and blossoms. We have made a desert of stones flower
at a seventy-year-old house’s edge. How long will a dying voice
shake this soil? Our bodies in laughter, dance? When will these shoulders
be clouds instead, a shroud, a swaddling, to meet some lake of things
we’ve known by heart. At this window, I watch the western cerulean sky
become blood-rose, study this pause which is not yet night,
the constellations still invisible. A bright memory is on the horizon,
postponed but nearer. We are here, nestled now in the furniture of
a house that speaks, doubles our love. Listen.
Photo One by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two By A. Barra – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3995941
Photo Three by By Tbachner – first upload in de wikipedia on 20:19, 10. Feb 2006 by Tbachner, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=727180
Photo Four by By 6-A04-W96-K38-S41-V38 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39336592
Photo Five by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons