Vine by Vine

Vines loom large in my memories of childhood –– not just the vines that served as a jungle rapid transit system in those old Tarzan movies but also the muscadines and honeysuckle that grew in my grandmother’s yard; the wild dewberries my sister and I would gather; the first spectacular passionflower I stumbled upon while exploring the forest near our home; and yes, my first encounter with poison ivy. There were good vines and a few bad ones.

Vines are an integral part of the Louisiana landscape, and when carefully planted and tended, they can be a beautiful presence in the garden. They can also be very destructive:

Cat’s claw, in particular, despite its attractive spring blooms, is a bane in New Orleans, where its voracious growth chokes other plants, ravages buildings and makes it tough to get rid of.

It’s a very bad vine indeed.

“People don’t always differentiate” between the good and the bad, says Charlotte Seidenberg, author of The New Orleans Garden: Gardening in the Gulf South. “They see a vine and think cat’s claw or poison ivy.” But if you rule out vines, you deprive the garden –– and wildlife –– of some real assets. “I love vines,” she says. “But people who want a meticulous, neat garden may want to choose carefully or not use vines at all.”

Seidenberg’s own Uptown garden is the antithesis of neat and meticulous; it’s a thick tangle of native plants; bird-friendly trees and shrubs; and, of course, vines, from the muscadine that cascades over a back porch to the fig vine, a relative of the mulberry, that grows on a rear wall. “I like the profusion of blooms,” she says of the many vines that grow in her lush yard. “And if you have a small garden and you’re growing for wildlife, vines allow you an extra layer of garden because they climb high. You can create a vertical garden.”

Well-placed vines can provide shade in summer (and, if deciduous, they will shed leaves in winter, allowing sunlight and warmth to come through). They can be used to mask an unsightly wall or fence or to create a privacy screen. Many vines are magnets for wildlife such as hummingbirds and other birds, bees and butterflies. Vines that are native to the Southeast, in particular, help support an ecosystem that extends from the soil to the tree canopy. Passiflora incarnata, for example –– the passionflower that surprised me with its stunning flowers when I was a kid –– provides food for the caterpillars of the Gulf fritillary butterfly, and the common cross vine, or trumpet flower (Bignonia capreolata), draws hummingbirds and bees.

Native and non-native vines can be invasive; it’s important to keep them under control by careful pruning, and the roots can be managed better if the vine is planted in a plastic pot with drain holes that can be buried in the soil. If a vine grows too aggressively into the tree canopy, Seidenberg says, it can be severed; birds will use the dead remains to build nests, and the stump will survive and send out new tendrils.

There are a number of hybrids available at nurseries that are less invasive than native species, such as the Madam Galen variety of trumpet creeper, which produces even showier flowers than the native version and grows at a more manageable rate.

A handful of vines make especially attractive garden plants, some more invasive than others. One of my favorites is Senecio confusus, better known as the Mexican flame vine, which sports red daisy-like flowers from spring through early fall. Carolina jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is another common vine in Louisiana gardens, thanks to its attractive, fragrant blooms; manageable growth; and usefulness as a ground cover. And there’s the ever-popular wisteria –– a spectacular bloomer but a very aggressive vine if it’s not kept in check.

That’s true of many vines, and it’s something to consider before planting. Once established, vines generally are low-maintenance plants; most of your work will involve simply keeping them from getting out of hand. The effort can reap great rewards, both aesthetic and ecological, but appreciating vines might mean having to overcome some prejudices. “Some people would consider it kind of invasive,” Seidenberg says, pointing to a huge Virginia creeper whose berries provide food for birds throughout the summer. “And it can be. But who cares?”  Reading up on Vines
Charlotte Seidenberg’s The New Orleans Garden (1993, University Press of Mississippi) includes a chapter on vines followed by an extensive list of vines that grow here, their characteristics and blooming patterns and the wildlife they attract.

Louisiana State University AgCenter horticulturists Dan Gill and Allen Owings have put together an informative and helpful handbook called “Ground Cover and Vines for Louisiana Landscapes.” It can be downloaded from the AgCenter Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com, or you can request a hard copy by calling 838-1170.

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