Saturday, June 4, 2011


           Just a quick note about what makes a vine a vine. A vine is a plant that pulls itself up or through a support of some kind by one of three mechanisms.

It is scandent, having flexible stems that maneuver themselves over and around whatever it’s near; or…

It climbs using aerial roots, like ivy and Virginia creeper; or…

It twines, employing various anatomical parts for the purpose of gaining altitude. Some plants use their stems; some use their petioles (the technical name for “leaf stem”); some grow tendrils,  the corkscrew-like filaments you associate with grapevines, from their stems ; and some, like clematis, produce tendrils out of the tips of their leaves.

             Isn’t nature amazing?

Never one to hesitate when plants with exotic names whisper my name as I peruse catalogs, availability lists, nurseries and garden centers, I’ve trialed 15 perennial vine species and cultivars (not including climbing roses), mostly in my own yard, some for doting clients. Below is my alphabetized list:

Akebia quinata 'Shiro Bana'
 Akebia quinata (Chocolate vine) This one boasts bluish-green foliage composed of five rounded leaflets (hence quinata) and spicy-smelling brownish-purple flowers (hence chocolate) in April and May. Edible purple fruits may appear in late summer. Two cultivars are sometimes found in the trade: ‘Variegata,’ with cream-splashed foliage; and ‘Shiro Bana,’ Japan’s monastery vine, which produces fragrant white flowers. I’d call it “white-chocolate vine,” but then I have waggish tendencies.

Ampelopsis brevipendunculata
Ampelopsis brevipedunculata (Porcelainberry) The foliage resembles that of hops, with which some of you may be familiar. (Tim, who grew up in the Mohawk Valley of New York, tells how his mom and her family would take hops-picking vacations for a couple of weeks in late summer. She said it was like getting paid for attending a camp-meeting, and remembered the occasions fondly.) The little white flowers are inconspicuous, but the plentiful berries mature from green to the most beautiful metallic blue. If you plant ‘Tricolor’ (a.k.a. ‘Variegata’ and ‘Elegans’), the green foliage is prettily splashed with pink (really!) and white. A Chinese native considered invasive in some places: mine died after three seasons in a pot.
Aster carolinianus

Aster carolinianus (Carolina aster) (F.Y.I.: Always offended by simplicity, taxonomists changed the genus name to Symphyotrichum. I urge you to resist.) This scandent late-season flower powerhouse produces multitudinous little lavender daisies with yellow centers from late September into November. Its drawbacks—a twiggy habit and semi-evergreen unremarkable foliage—fade into the background most of the time.  

Bignonia capreolata

  Bignonia capreolata (Crossvine) Pronounced “Big Nona,” local plantsman Bobbie Brock used to say it sounds like a lady truck-driver’s name. This vigorous evergreen puts out vaguely fragrant orange-red trumpet-shaped flowers in late May and June. A native of the southeast, it is extremely vigorous where it’s happy.

Campsis radicans 

Campsis radicans (Trumpet creeper) Grows wild around these parts. Its dark green, wisteria-like foliage is nice enough on its own, but the orange trumpet-shaped flowers it produces from mid-July into September give the plant its claim to fame. Trumpet vine has thuggish tendencies: I’ve seen specimens climb utility poles, cross the street on the wires and start down the other pole.
Gelsemium sempervirens
Gelsemium sempervirens (Carolina jessamine, not “jasmine”) A southeastern U.S. native. Evergreen leaves take on a red tint in cooler weather, showcasing small golden-yellow funnel-shaped flowers in late winter. G. rankinii foliage and flowers look the same as G. sempervirens, but bloom-time is September to November. Cultivar Plena’ boasts lovely double flowers.

Gloriosa superba 'Rothschildiana'

Gloriosa superba ‘Rothschildiana’ (Glory lily) A scandent specimen, this tuberous beauty produces eye-catching yellow-and-red flowers with recurved petals in late summer to fall. In my yard, they continue to multiply in their mostly shady spot and are one plant I don’t mind staking. The straight species has orange flowers: at our house, they twine themselves into the eleagnus hedge for a special late-summer show.

Holboellia coriacea

Holboellia coriacea (hole-BELL-ee-uh) With no common name I know of, Holboellia has been a slow starter in my garden; nonetheless, I’m encouraged that it continues to live. Oblong evergreen glossy leaves on tough, wiry stems climb a little higher up its support each year. Eight years after mine went in the ground, it finally bloomed—tiny, inconspicuous muddy-lavender bells proving the axiom that anticipation often exceeds the actual event.

Hydrangea anomala spp. petiolaris
Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris (Climbing hydrangea) Greenish-white, lace-cap-like flowers appear in late May to June. The dark green, heart-shaped foliage climbs by aerial roots. You can maintain this one as a shrub if you’d rather, but it would prefer to climb. Tim’s and my specimen, an orphan from a job that didn’t pan out, lives on the latticed screen surrounding our HVAC unit. We go out once or twice a year to rip errant stems from places—like the coils—they’re not supposed to be. It only sees the sun for an hour or so in the early morning and only rarely gets fed and watered, so it’s a hardy bugger.

Lonicera sempervirens

 Lonicera sempervirens (Trumpet or evergreen honeysuckle) Native to the southeastern U.S., this woody-stemmed twiner produces sparse but constant clusters of scarlet-orange tubular flowers from late spring through summer. The semi-evergreen L. x heckrottii ‘Gold Flame’ (a cross between L. sempervirens and L. americana) is common in the trade and boasts slightly fragrant, pinky-orange flowers. The honeysuckle you remember from your childhood is more than likely the intensely fragrant and delicious but thuggish Japanese honeysuckle, L. japonica. If you live in the south, you should probably avoid the latter, given its predilection for expansion.

Manettia luteorubra
'John Elsley'

Manettia luteorubra (Brazilian firecracker vine) Tubular, one-to-two-inch bright red flowers with yellow tips explode from the light to dark green foliage in mid- to late summer. The hybrid ‘John Elsley’ has slightly larger blooms. Underused and hard to find, this is another one I wouldn’t be without.

 Passiflora spp. (Passionflower) Many species hail from Brazil and are not reliably hardy for us, but three are: P. caerulea, P. incarnata and P. ‘Amethyst Lady.’ The first and third are cultivated; the second, native to scrub areas of the southeastern U.S., grows wild hereabouts; locals call it “Maypop.” I love my ‘Amethyst Lady.’ Her exotic purple and white flowers cover our outdoor shower every summer and play host to the caterpillars of the Gulf fritillary butterfly. The downside is that I spend about an hour every week from June to October pulling up volunteer seedlings from all over my yard and the neighbors’, but it’s a small price to pay for all that wow factor. ‘Lady Margaret’ is a red-blooming cultivar we tried one summer. Blooms are smaller but definitely red, her growth rate more restrained. She did not survive the winter. What else would you expect from somebody named Lady Margaret?

Solanum jasminiodes

              Solanum jasminoides (Potato vine) Another of my beloved Solanum species. Delicate-looking stems with dainty leafleted light-green foliage produce characteristic pale blue potato-like flowers with yellow stamens. My specimen is the cultivar ‘Album,’ with white blooms. While never robust, it nonetheless comes back no matter what the winter throws at it or how heedlessly I whack it down.  


Trachelospermum jasminoides (Star or Confederate jasmine) A Southern standard, powerfully fragrant white star-shaped flowers perfume our whole block in May and June. Two plants completely engulf my back arbor; Tim periodically goes out with a machete to restore the passageway. This evergreen vine suffers cold damage some winters, but usually manages to recover by bloom time. A cultivar with white variegation on the foliage has recently entered the marketplace. It looks leprous to me.

Wisteria sinensis

Wisteria spp. (Wisteria) Wisteria is practically synonymous with The South. Not for people craving ultra-low-maintenance plants, the rest of us can consider three main species: W. floribunda, or Japanese wisteria, has the longest and most intensely fragrant flower clusters. It bears 13 to 19 leaflets per leaf and twines clockwise. I mention these attributes because W. sinensis, Chinese wisteria, has 9 to 13 (usually 11) leaflets per leaf and twines counter-clockwise. Its flowers are only slightly less long and minutely less fragrant than the Japanese, so only by leaflet count and twining direction can anyone tell them apart. Even then, you have to remember which is which. (If anyone devises a workable mnemonic, please let me know. It’s like “Feed a cold, starve a fever. Or do you “Starve a cold…”?) Suffice it to say that both bloom in early spring and are equally thuggish. The better-behaved native American wisteria, W. frutescens, is far less showy: smaller flowers, late spring to summer bloom, hardly any scent to speak of. But it certainly has a less exuberant growth habit, if that’s what you want in a wisteria.

Aristolochia macrophylla
Oddly missing from the viney plant pantheon here on the coast is Aristolochia macrophylla (Dutchman’s pipe), the ubiquitous Southern porch-screening plant. Grow this one for the big, heart-shaped leaves that quickly cover any support you give it. Although I lived around it for all of my childhood in southeastern Virginia, I never knew it had flowers, which, in fact, it does: greenish tubular things with patterns of yellow, purple and brown hidden by the foliage. Somebody thought they resembled pipes the Dutch smoke, and the name stuck. I haven’t turned up a single local source of plants; if you want one here, you’ll have to start it from seed.

Actinidia deliciosa
 One vine I haven’t tried is kiwi. The cultivar listed most often in the trade is Actinidia kolomitka ‘Arctic Beauty.’ That icy cultivar name—plus the fact that one of its big selling points is its pink variegation: fat chance of that happening on the sultry coast—gives me pause. However, the January 2008 issue of The Avant Gardener mentions a species of kiwi grown in California, A. deliciosa ‘Elmwood,’ as a good plant for the South. As soon as I find one, I’m putting her in.
           I know what you’re thinking. How did I ever manage to grow dozens of different vines—not including 20-odd clematis and several cultivars of climbing roses—on only four chicken-wire-covered posts in my back garden? Simple: I’m just a little ol’ master of verticality.

            Stay tuned for the sad story of my struggles with the genus Clematis, subtitled “The Importance of Failure.” Thanks for dropping by.