Shrub or tree to 12 m tall. Shoots with stiff curved hairs, becoming glabrous; older bark pale grey, fibrous. Leaf ovate to lanceolate, 1.5–7 × 0.5–2 cm, base cuneate, apex acute; glabrous except for long stiff hairs on margins and under main veins; margin entire, rarely serrate or lobed; petiole 1–2 mm, with stiff hairs. Flowering in May (in habitat), richly scented, in a congested terminal thyrse of 1–3-flowerd cymes; pedicels short or nearly absent. Bracts leaflike, lanceolate to obovate; bracteoles c. 4 mm, with stiff hairs. Calyx of 5 linear sepals, 4–10 × 1 mm, fringed with stiff hairs. Corolla white or pinkish, 1–2 cm; lobes 5, suborbicular; tube densely woolly inside and with sparse appressed hairs outside. Stamens included; ovary narrowly ovoid, hairy; style often exserted. Fruiting June-August; achenes terete, striated. (Flora of China 2021).
Distribution Afghanistan In the Himalaya China SW Sichuan, SE Xizang (Tibet), NW Yunnan India In the Himalaya Nepal Pakistan In the Himalaya
Habitat Forests, scrub, and grassland, to 3500 m asl
USDA Hardiness Zone 6
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)
The Himalayan representative of the genus Zabelia was the first species to be introduced to the west (to Ireland in 1847); it is one of the species with flowers densely grouped and strongly scented, and with five sepals and five lobes to the corolla. It is fairly hardy, but thrives best in mild oceanic parts of the UK and Ireland; what is believed to have been the original introduction, in an alkaline soil at the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin, survived well into the 20th century (Bean 1976), while another not far away at Mount Usher, mentioned in successive editions of Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, was still alive in 2015, when it was 12 m high with stems to 25 cm dbh (Tree Register 2021). Another tree at the historic Blackpool Gardens in south Devon had even thicker trunks, to 33 cm dbh in 2006, but had died before 2017 (Tree Register 2021). In the harsher climate of the English Midlands, an example planted in 1919 by Francis Hammond in his garden in Market Harborough, now maintained by the Robert Smyth Academy as the Hammond Arboretum, was a relatively modest four-metre bush in June 2009, when the heady scent of its white blossom filled the collection. Zabelia triflora also grew to 7 m in the notoriously reactive and sometimes very dry chalky soil of Highdown in West Sussex (Tree Register 2021). The species does not always grow this strongly; Chinese plants from the eastern limits of the natural range are described by the authors of the Flora of China as shrubs no more than 2 m tall (Flora of China 2021).
Zabelia triflora – still more familiar under its old name within Abelia – is grown principally for its delicious vanilla-scented blossom, though old plants with their gnarled, ash-grey, stringy bark can make eye-catching specimens, vaguely reminiscent of the east Himalayan arborescent spindle Euonymus grandiflorus f. salicifolius or (in flower) of their distant ally Viburnum × hillieri.
Like most Zabelia, this is a variable species; the smaller-leaved form sometimes distinguished as var. parvifolia used at least to be cultivated in the UK and Ireland from Yu 14481 and Forrest 10500 (Bean 1976). This variant is sometimes called Zabelia parvifolia (C.B. Clarke) Golubk. and should not be – but no doubt sometimes is – confused with Abelia parvifolia Hemsl., a taxon which gains mention on this site (in the generic introduction to Abelia) as a Critically Endangered variety of Abelia macrotera Rehder.
At Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, UK, Zabelia triflora is also represented from a relatively easterly collection made by Tony Schilling in central Nepal in 1979 (Clarke 1988). The species remains commercially available in the UK from a number of sources (Royal Horticultural Society 2020). In the United States, and in Australia and New Zealand, by contrast, it seems completely unknown under any name.