Vines: You Spin Me Right Round


Vines add romance and luxuriance to gardens. They allow the gardener to extend vertical space- you can garden up and over your head. They make use of not just the ground but the sky. Many people shy away from vines because they either don’t consider the space or they think that they are a pain in the ass. Its been a personal goal of mine to use vines to their best advantage and to solve any problems that the gardener might incur. There is a spectacular array of vines that are available in our climate and it is a pity to not take advantage of that bounty. I’ll discuss some of my favorite lesser known vines that are as spectacular as they are useful. There are several things you should consider before planting but with a little planning and information you can make an informed choice, achieve what you want, and have a long lasting easy to grow bower.

Wind it up

The most important aspect to vines is to understand how they climb; match the support to that adaptation, and proceed. First: there are twiners. These are vines that grow around supports attaching with firm spiral effect. These vines as all plants grow from the tips and as they grow they literally spin around and adhere to whatever support you offer. Generally the smaller in diameter support you supply the easier it will be to get the vine to soar. For instance, don’t expect a twiner to vine around anything wider than 5” in diameter. The very best way to deal with these is to train them to an appropriate support when young. That means you should start with a support no more than three times the diameter of the vine’s stems that you intend to train. This will allow the vine to twine and purchase with minimum effort and it will adhere more quickly.  In time their trunks will swell prodigiously and hold themselves in a free standing habit.  My favorite way to deal with this is to provide a permanent guy wire for the twining plant to adhere.

Can I have your support?

The very best support is #4 size copper wire. Not only is it the perfect diameter it is easily conformed to whatever shape or size you deem appropriate for your twiner. This means you can effectively wind the wire in a spiral shape up walls or along fences and the vine will follow. I like to attach it to a fair sized eye hook at the top or along as I go. The wire may be threaded through the ‘eyes’ and this will not only guide it but hold it in place. If attached to an eave on the house this means that you can easily unhook the vine and lay it down if you need to wash or paint the house.  Additionally, this keeps the foliage away from the house which encourages air circulation and prevents wear on the house surface. If done gently this means the vine can be carefully lifted and reattached when the chore is done. Number 4 copper wire is incredibly strong, but is readily bent and will hold its shape. Its tough and can support some of the heaviest of vines with no issue. It is easily obtained at home improvement stores in the electrical/wire section. Usually it sells for approximately .90-1.05/per foot and this may sound expensive at first, consider that it lasts for many decades and you can  re-use it indefinitely if the need arises. Just as charming it will take on a natural verdigris finish with time. It is the epitome of versatility. You can string it up and along fences and walls- you can have a vine and train it virtually anywhere. My favorite application is to wind it around stout pillars in a spiral configuration. The vine will then follow the wire and appear effortlessly to float around the pillar.  Evergreen twining vines such as Apricot Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum var. mandianum  Zone 7b) conform to this beautifully and clothe pillars from the base to the top with a garland of dapper evergreen foliage and spangles of fragrant citrus scented pale yellow/apricot flowers.  Copper wire can be used to train vines to the top of pergolas or arches- it will get you there and up and over the top.  Its only limit is your imagination.

I can have it all

If you have ever lost a Jasmine to a freeze you may be wary to try any other. Well, it turns out  you were growing the wrong Jasmine. Florist’s Jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum Zone 9a) is frequently sold- especially at late winter and early spring garden shows as hardy. Well it isn’t- and though it will often reemerge after freezing to the ground in winter it blooms on wood from the previous year so that it will never bloom again. A huge downer.  Enter Poet’s Jasmine (Jasminum officinale Zone 7b) which is the Jasmine we should be growing. There are several extraordinary selections of this anciently cultivated cold hardy vine. My favorite is the cultivar Jasminum officinale ‘Affine’.   Vigorous new growth is tinted maroon and in June to September a phenomenal display  of individually 1” wide pink budded powerfully fragrant flowers in clusters that open to sugar white. Its sweet perfume wafts far on warm summer nights and for months the starry flowers are shed in a fragrant cascade. In autumn the deciduous foliage takes on apricot and yellow tints before shedding. It is incredibly drought tolerant- and its shunned by deer.  I could never be without this lovely vine.  And it will NEVER freeze away. Its a large, vigorous twiner to 20’ tall and 10’ wide in 8 years. Consider it for a pergola or long fence.

Jasminum officinale ‘Affine’

Xera’s Top 5 Most Fragrant Vines:

  1. Trachelospermum j.var. mandianum (Zn7b) Citrus scented. Apricot Star Jasmine
  2. Lonicera x americana (Zn5b) POWERFUL fragrance carries 30′. Pink Honeysuckle
  3. Jasminum officinale ‘Affine’ (Zn7b) The sweetest perfume. ‘Affine’ Poet’s Jasmine
  4. Trachelospermum jasminoides (Zn7b) A classic summer fragrance. Star Jasmine
  5. Mandevilla laxa (suaveolens) (Zn8a) Sweet, subtle cologne. Chilean Jasmine

Regal pedigree for shade

Gardeners tend to go to pieces for certain types of variegation. Not all variegated plants can pull off what can be gaudy, busy, mismatched. This vine skips gaudy and goes right for beautiful. Kadsura japonica ‘Fukurin’ (Zone 7b) is a regal evergreen vine with a fine pedigree. This member of the Magnolia family has glossy leaves that are large and tapered with the edges picoteed in  bold cream and a center of sage green. New growth is liberally flushed with pink on its way to maturity. This vigorous twiner prefers a fair amount of shade- ideal in a woodland. Its small double petalled white flowers transform into strings of bold red berries by fall. It is fairly quick in its ascent and can easily cover a pergola or arch. 15’ tall and 10’ wide in time. It appreciates rich, well drained soil and regular summer water for maximum growth and impact. As far as I can tell it is perfectly hardy and evergreen to zone 7b (5ºF).  I suspect it could endure colder by simply becoming deciduous. Its my number one choice for a vine in shade.

The queen of vines and a prince for winter

Clematis which adhere to supports by modifying their leaf stems and using these to hoist their way along can also be made to climb copper wire. Perhaps gridded trellis (again with small diameter wires to surround) is the best way to display these prodigious bloomers. They, as many vines, are famous for becoming bare at the knees. Plant a shrub in front of the base of the vine and all is well.  The large flowered varieties are so well known that I will forego any more mention in favor of a species/cultivar that I find has great charm at a wonderful time of year. More gardeners should know and grow Clematis cirrhosa ‘Wisley Cream’.(Zone 6b) From October to February it is clad in luminous light yellow/cream pendulous bells. It wears small, evergreen glossy leaves and is vigorous but not rambunctious.  In fact, this and many Clematis are seen to their best advantage, I think, not on artificial supports but trained wildly into shrubs or trees. In my own garden  ‘Wisley Cream’ displays its bell shaped flowers as a garland ascending  a 20’ tall Italian Cypress.  The cream colored bells are brightly conspicuous against the deep green foliage of the cypress. This mediterranean native is tough, despite its diminutive scale of leaf and flower and cold hardy as well as drought adapted when established. It tolerates a fair amount of shade surprisingly. Blooms appear for an extended period and are welcome and cheery in the dullness of winter. It is also a prized food source for overwintering Anna’s Hummingbirds. To 15’ tall or taller and 6’ wide. Prune after blooming if needed.

Clematis cirrhosa ‘Wisely Cream’

Self determination

Vines that attach by rootlets that emerge from the stems must be treated in a whole different way. Self clinging is an an apt description. They should never be allowed to climb the walls of a house or structure where you do not want potential damaging long lasting effects. A fence, a pole, a barren ugly wall is the appropriate home for this group of self determined plants. A perennial favorite in this group is the hybrid trumpet vine Campsis x ‘Madame Galen’ (Zone 6a) Enormous fluted tubular flowers are saturated on the inside and out with bold apricot orange. The huge flowers virtually obscure tiny visiting Hummingbirds that pursue it voraciously.  This vine is a tropical appearing floral crescendo for summer into autumn. Not small it requires ample space, 10’ x 20’ to really show its potential. Once established it is tolerant of every condition save for dense shade which deters bloom. Its completely deciduous dropping its compound pretty leaves after they switch to yellow in fall.

Sometimes clingy is a good thing

If sunshine is at a premium there is a duo of self clinging vines that are poised to explode in popularity  These seldom seen species of climbing Hydrangeas have everything required for greatness. They are evergreen with incredibly glossy handsome leaves a trait that leaves them perfect for clothing nearly any surface in part shade to shade. (I have experimented with these in full sun and have had great success as well.) Hydrangea seemannii (Zone7a) is the first to gain notoriety and among those who have grown it has a legendary reputation. The 3” long by 2” wide shiny leaves appear densely and form a curtain of layered foliage. In summer and on wood from the previous year huge 2” wide round white buds erupt to reveal a circular configuration of white  fuzzy true flowers surrounded by large creamy sterile bracts. I have grown it in very dense shade as well  and had excellent results. Most spectacular is its display in the Heronswood Garden. There it was sent soaring up the trunk of a 75’ tall highly limbed Douglas Fir. My first encounter with this vine and it was in spectacular early summer bloom. Very similar and just as adaptable is the species Hydrangea integrifolia (Zone 7b) which adheres itself to any surface by strong rootlets and it has juvenile leaves which display deeper serration before maturing to entire and glossy. On mature vines they are host to a massive display of white flowers in late spring to early summer. As with Hydrangea seemanii these can be slow in their youth but as they establish growth increases at an exponential rate. Not only are they tolerant of shade, they also shirk drought- ideal for life among the greedy tree roots of the Pacific Northwest forest floor. Each achieves 35’ ultimately- give them as much time and space as they require.

I wanna reach out and grab ya!

Vines that attach by tendrils are another ingenious adaptation to achieve altitude. The modified curly stems that emanate from the canes attach to any support that is not too huge. Passion vines  (Passiflora species), and Grape (Vitis species) are examples of vines that attach by this method.  This adaptation demands that a trellis or wire should be sturdy. (Here, again, #4 copper wire works beautifully). Their best display, however, is along wire fences and fine wooden lattice.  Nearly all tendril climbers represent vigorous species so give them ample room. Blue Crown Passion Vine (Passiflora caerulea Zone 7a) is a perfect example and a very, very easy to grow vine tolerating the poorest soil- which actually improves the amount of blooms and thrives on the barest minimum of summer irrigation.  The first nursery in which I worked had a 6” wide patch of gravel between a wire fence and a paved alley on a hot southern aspect adjacent to the nursery.  I literally carved a hole in the gravel and plopped in a Blue Crown Passion Vine and I never expected it to survive. It did spectacularly and with nearly continuous runoff from the nursery irrigation it exploded and eventually spread nearly 25’ in either direction on a wire fence and shading the whole nursery in verdant foliage and fascinating flowers. This spring we are offering a trio of new hybrids of Passiflora caerulea.  These are  free flowering and permanently compact Passion Vines brand new to the market.  Slightly less hardy than the standard species  these (Zone7b/8a) will be much, much easier to accommodate in small gardens maturing at just 8’ to 12’ tall.  They are: ‘Silly Cow’  with round, vivid, blue and purple flowers, ‘Star of Sorbitron’ with purple filaments transposed on creamy white sepals, and ‘Betty Miles Young’ with lavender sepals and deep- nearly black filaments in the center. Not only improved in hue, they incorporate the variety of flower form from semi-tropical species in this enormous North and South American genus.

Garden in the sky

This is just a hint of what is possible with vines. We continue to search out new species and varieties that are adapted to shade, drought, deer, that support spectacular flowers and fragrance. Literally, the sky is the limit. Take note of #4 copper wire and let it guide your imagination. Remember that vines make use of unused space in a garden. In your search find out how a vine climbs as well as its ultimate size. Does it require pruning? Does it bloom on new or old growth? Evergreen? Fragrant? Arm yourself with the facts and you will become addicted to vertical gardening.


Vines: You Spin Me Right Round

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