home Pacific NW Magazine home

Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then

Plant Life
Illustration: Passion vine Social Climbers
Vines make magic with color and form

VINES ARE the final garnishment to architecture, trees, shrubs or even bare ground. Their nature is to climb on, through or around something, so they're perfect to pair with other plants in artful combinations. A vine's flowers, foliage and seed pods create more seasons of interest, taking full advantage of each square inch of garden space. A camellia that flowers in March can serve later as scaffold for the nodding, bell-shaped flowers of a Clematis alpina. A vine softens arbors and walls while it disguises many an unwelcome sight. Can you think of a better way to hide a chain-link fence than with a wisteria?

The accommodatingly climbing ways of vines lend themselves to garden magic, too. A pergola can be transformed into a shady retreat with a coating of sweet-smelling honeysuckle, or a big old pine tree can appear miraculously awash in pink flowers by threading a Clematis montana through its boughs. The trick lies in figuring out each vine's built-in method of climbing, and pairing it with the support that matches its needs.

Some vines are far easier to train to grow upward than others. Clematis and sweet peas have tendrils or leaf stalks that curl tightly around anything available. These grasping tendrils are amazingly resourceful, reaching out to span a void to find something else to climb up once the original host is covered. Perhaps the most visually dramatic example of this kind of climber is the passion vine (Passiflora caerulea), whose tendrils look like springy little Slinkys, prominent enough to be one of the plant's appealing features.

Because they scramble and weave, both clematis and sweet peas are naturals to grow up and through other plants. They prefer a closely woven support system of wires or screening. I grow sweet peas up a rusty metal tower I wrap with black netting to give the tendrils plenty of chance to cling and grip. Wisteria, honeysuckle, morning glories and runner beans hold themselves up by spiraling their whole stem around their support. Oddly, each species is determined to twine in its own chosen direction. So don't be surprised if you carefully wrap a plant one way around a post only to find that it has uncoiled and wrapped itself about the other way all on its own.
Illustration Now In Bloom
According to a Polish legend, many springtimes ago a mother cat was crying at the bank of the river in which her kittens were drowning. The willows at the river's edge swept their long branches into the waters to rescue the kittens who had fallen in while chasing butterflies. The kittens were safely brought to shore, and every February since, willow branches sprout tiny fur-like buds at their tips where the tiny kittens once clung. The French pink pussy willow, Salix caprea, is a good choice for a wet corner of the garden because its buds are large and wooly with a lavender tint, perfect to bring indoors for arrangements. S. caprea can be kept to shrub size by cutting to the ground every few years.
spacer spacer spacer
Climbing roses and bougainvillea are really scramblers rather than climbers, throwing out long, lax branches thick with thorns to hook onto supports. These should be tied to a trellis until they grow enough to intertwine and form a self-supporting structure. I have a pergola with thick wooden supports, ideal for a hunky climbing rose or wisteria. But for newer or smaller vines, I've wrapped the posts in little white Christmas lights that are ideal to clip any kind of vine to for extra support. Unfortunately, at least three layers of lights are wound around the posts now because it's impossible to extricate the earlier, partly burned-out layers, which are literally encrusted with vine stems. It is pretty at night, though, when the lights burn both inside and outside the layers of green.

Virginia creeper, climbing hydrangeas and ivy have adhesive discs or pads on the ends of their branches. Ivy is an especially zealous climber whose aerial roots are able to find their way into cracks and crevices, causing damage when ripped away. Climbing hydrangeas (H. petiolaris) use aerial roots to spread along a fence or wall and form a glorious mat of foliage topped by white lacecap flowers in midsummer.

Each of these climbing methods has its advantages and disadvantages for the gardener, but it's well worth figuring them out to make the most of all the fragrance, texture, flower and height vines offer.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times news artist.

Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then home
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company