A Gardening Journal
Good Together: Lion's Ears & Savitzii Parlor Maple
- Published: October 17 2016
I have many score of "conservatory" specimens—tender plants that I grow individually in containers, and which I overwinter year by year—so that I can enjoy long-term explorations with horticulture that isn't otherwise hardy here. Just-for-the-season container plantings are the opportunity for speculatory and even manic combinations that might last barely one season, let alone thrive year after year. No matter: whether a success or failure, the gig is up by hard frost.
Here's one: a huge container of delicate variegated abutilons and kick-ass South African shrubs known as lion's ears. Three each of Abutilon x hybridum 'Savitzii' and Leonotis leonurus were planted in a twenty-inch pot in May. Into July, this combo was entirely about foliage and texture, with the extraordinarily cream-margined leaves of the bushy parlor maples amid the erect thin-leaved stems of the lion's ears.
But since August, the lion's ears stems have sported their characteristic (and fabulous!) whorls of fuzzy orange trumpets.
I'm guessing that it's the spoon shape and interior fuzziness of the tips of the blooms' trumpets that, along with the rusty orange coloring, says "looks just like lion's ears."
Leonotis leonurus and lions are both indigenous to South Africa, so the resemblance came to mind more readily than if the plant were native to, say, Wisconsin. Would this exciting shrub have been known there as bobcat ears?
The leaves of Savitzii parlor maple are among the most intensely variegated of any plant.
These subtropical shrubs aren't at all related to true maples despite the similarity in their leaf shapes. The thick creamy borders of Savitzii leaves remind me of the foliage of leaves of this true maple cultivar, Acer platanoides 'Drummondii', which are also heavily margined in cream.
Alas, this showstopping and very hardy maple doesn't tolerate the heat and bugs of summers in New England, where its foliage is quickly shredded. Enjoy it when you visit Canada, Oregon, Washington State, and the British Isles.
But enough with the stunning particulars of each player of this season's container pairing of Abutilon and Leonotis. How well did they combine their talents to play together?
For all their collective vividness, their contrasts in shapes, colors, and textures—let alone this group of plants' unflagging vigor after over four months of jostling cohabitation—I'd still give the combination just a "B": yes, the contrasts are all full-throated and yet not strident, but they aren't counterpointed by any harmonies. This article is one of the "Good Together" series, and with these two, that's a left-handed compliment at best. Abutilon 'Savitzii' and Leonotis leonurus are only good together, not great.
What a difference would have been made by some links of comparable vigor between this detail of the Abutilon and that of the Leonotis. But only with some patience might you discover that there's a bit of white at the base of the Leonotis trumpets, and that it's not enough to create a strong link with all that white of the Abutilon foliage. Meanwhile, the Abutilon isn't displaying any orange at all, even though Savitzii blooms are apricot. Even after a long summer of solicitous sun, heat, water, and fertilizer, this cultivar still lived up to its reputation for being shy to bloom.
Perhaps a better Abutilon partner all season long would have been Souvenir de Bonn, whose foliage is nearly as variegated as that of Savitzii, but whose large apricot blooms are almost ever-present. If I had Souvenir'd instead of Savitzii'd, there would have been orange flowers from the moment of planting, not just from August on. But Savitzii is compact and slow-growing: even after a full summer, it wasn't three feet high. Souvenir de Bonn could have grown to six feet by September, and its rangier and often horizontal stems would have either shaded the vertical Leonotis stems or poked them in the ribs.
Overall, then, despite their dramatic visuals, neither Abutilon seems the ideal partner for Leonotis if both are growing in the same container. No matter: with tender plantings, next season is always a fresh start. Perhaps I'll plant one container solely with lion's ears and another solely with Souvenir de Bonn. Then I can adjust the containers' positions to keep the Leonotis in the sun it needs to flower despite the towering performance of the Abutilon.
Here's how to grow the related lion's ear species, Leonotis nepitifolia. Even when grown as an annual, it is usually much larger than Leonotis leonurus, to eight or even ten feet.
Here's a cultivar of lion's ears, Naivasha Apricot, with flowers that are pale instead of the usual full-on orange. This more muted coloring might make it an an even better partner to Souvenir de Bonn.
Here's how to grow Abutilon pictum 'Souvenir de Bonn'. Although of much larger scale than Savitzii, its hardiness and handling—let alone the pairing of apricot flowers with white-variegated leaves—are similar.