Beautiful Native Plants

Blog HOME ***Our team of bloggers writes about various aspects of ecosystem gardening from native plants to pollinators and wildlife.***

Monday, February 15, 2016

More Love for Native Vines

Vines are popular with gardeners for many reasons; it's time to broaden our knowledge about the outstanding choices we have for using NATIVE vines in our landscapes! There is really no need to choose an exotic vine, many of which have invaded our natural areas and caused great harm to native wildlife. 

The same thing gardeners love about vines is also what drives them crazy. Vines climb, creep, crawl, drape and cover; it’s the good news and the bad news. But I’m advocating more love for native vines because they are not only useful in the garden, but ultimately such good providers for wildlife. What’s needed is an understanding of the growth habits of the vines you want to incorporate.

By nature vines are among the more opportunistic of plants. Their roots take hold in the woodland floor and they use tendrils of different kinds to clamber upwards and spread their leaves in the sunshine. This means that a gardener can multiply the flower quotient by utilizing vertical space, or space that would otherwise be devoid of growth. Vines can cover walls, mailboxes, fences, terraces, trellises, arbors, rock piles, and tree stumps. Vines also make excellent groundcovers. Some vines are more opportunistic than others; due diligence is the key to success.

One of the easiest vines to grow, and adapted to most of the eastern United States, is Lonicera sempervirens, or coral honeysuckle. Common names differ, of course, in different places, and this vine is also known by some as trumpet honeysuckle. But don’t confuse it with trumpet vine, the voracious Campsis radicans. 

Easy to control, coral honeysuckle is:
  • a native honeysuckle with a long bloom season
  • loved by butterflies and hummingbirds
  • a larval host for Spring Azure butterflies and Snowberry clearwing moths
  • fruit for quail and many songbirds
  • not preferred by deer
Knowing the scientific name is really important when you are trying to convey or seek information about a particular plant. For instance, the following plants are ALL called ‘woodbine’ in some parts of the country: Lonicera sempervirens, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, and Clematis virginiana. As native plant advocates, we need to be asking for the right plants!

Common names get you nowhere. Anecdotal evidence: Sitting at an outside eatery in Utah one summer, I was asked if I could identity a pretty trumpet-shaped flower hanging from a vine nearby. When I said ‘no,’ friends told me they would ask the server.
"Well, I do know for sure what she will call it," I said.
"What?" came the unbelieving question. 
"Trumpet flower," I said, and you already know that sure enough, she did, too;  leaving us no more enlightened than before.

So know exactly what to ask for when you are looking for your native vine.

Campsis radicans, trumpet vine; not for the faint of heart. Flowers have tubular shape similar to   coral honeysuckle but not as slender. This one is photographed high up in a tree. Trumpet vine is an aggressive grower that needs serious planning for containment and pruning if you want to grow it at home.  It thrives in infertile sandy soil, which could be a plus, but the suckering roots make it a nightmare in rich moist soil. Be warned!

Trumpet vine, lovely and good for hummingbirds,
but aggressive climber and spreader.
Trumpet vine flowers are beautiful and it is one of the main sources of food for the ruby-throated hummingbird throughout the bird’s range. This vine grows rapidly, is tenacious, grasping, and heavy. I have seen only two places where homeowners successfully corralled it. One was on a tall, thick pole surrounded by a flagstone terrace.  One was on a heavily supported T-shaped trellis in the middle of sandy lawn that could be mowed closely around the base. It’s possible, but it’s constant vigilance, and even then only with pre-approved barriers.

Did you know that we do have a native clematis? Clematis virginiana , or Virgin’s bower, has a snowy white, delicate flower, much smaller, but no less lovely, than the exotic ones you buy in the box stores. It's a hardy plant and easy to grow. Blooms appear late summer to fall, with copious amounts of pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies. And after the flowers, the seeds! The seeds ripen from green to rusty brown, and then sport long feathery tails, just as showy as the flowers. This unusual formation earns the vine another common name: Old man’s beard.

There is an exotic imposter, Clematis ternifolia, Japanese clematis.  This invasive exotic vine smothers everything in its path, and is considered a pest plant by our National Park Service, among many others. Tell the difference by examining the leaf margins. Native leaf margin is toothed, exotic leaf margin is entire, or smooth.

Beautiful native wisteria, Wisteria frutescens
There is native wisteria, too, Wisteria frutescens; not aggressive the way the Asian exotic wisteria is. Native wisteria blooms in early spring, AFTER the leaves have appeared, again unlike the exotic, which flowers before the leaves. It bears fragrant flowers on new wood, needs a strong support and annual pruning when mature, but is a beautiful addition to any vertical sunny space.

Widely used throughout the south, a discussion of native vines is not complete without mentioning Gelsemium sempervirens, variously known as Carolina jessamine or jasmine, along with many other names. Easy to grow; beautiful fragrant flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds; evergreen leaves in much of its range; thick cover for trellis features and as a groundcover. However, it must be noted that all parts of this plant are toxic. As are other plants we commonly use in our gardens. You will have to come to your own conclusions.

Next up, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Virginia creeper. Yes, it creeps! This vine will spread over the ground as well as upwards because roots form at the nodes where vines come in contact with soil. So, another mixed bag – if you have limited space in a yard, it may not be a good choice. However, those creeping qualities make Virginia creeper an excellent groundcover. It covers the ground fairly quickly and spreads thickly enough to crowd out weeds. If you have the luxury of just being able to mow around it, it’s quite wonderful. Note that it will NOT flower and fruit as a groundcover.

Virginia creeper in fall. Leaves of three, let it be; leaves of
five, let it thrive!
And Virginia creeper is hard to beat as a provider of food and cover for wildlife. It’s got nectar and pollen; its leaves are eaten by several moth caterpillars, including the Giant Moth. When ripe, the dark blue berries contrast with brilliant red foliage in the fall and they are high in the lipid fats that are so important for powering migrating birds on their journeys. A long list of birds and small mammals are sustained by this high-quality food source.

Virginia creeper and poison ivy are sometimes confused. Creeper has five leaves and dark berries. Poison ivy has three leaves and whitish berries - both are beneficial to wildlife.

Passionflower, (Passiflora incarnata) is perhaps the ultimate paradox. This divinely beautiful vine perplexes and impassions as few others do. Gardeners scream, “I can’t grow it for anything!!” as often as “I can’t get rid of it!” Proving the importance of knowing both the plant’s needs, and what you can provide. Your county extension agent can help you if you’re not sure what the conditions in your yard allow you to provide. Native plant societies are also great sources for local information, including where to buy plants.
Passionflower. It provokes passions. When happy it will
neet haircuts. 
There are many other native vines, of course, including ones in the the grape, (Vitis), and greenbrier, (Smilax) families, that may be suitable for larger parcels of land. Here a few for the more average sized yards: Dutchman’s pipe, (Aristolochia macrophylla) Wild Yam, (Dioscorea villosa), Groundnut (Apios americana), Hog peanut, (Amphicarpaea bracteata), and butterfly pea, (Clitoria mariana) All of these are worth searching for, from a reliable native plant nursery or sale. Each has special needs and special benefits for wildlife and for gardeners, wild or not. 

Sue Dingwell