Ornamental Vines

Audrey Hillman
Adams County Master Gardener

For versatility in the garden it's hard to beat the group of plants known as vines. They serve many purposes, and come in all sizes, shapes, flower and foliage color. There are annuals, evergreens, deciduous perennial (those that lose their leaves in the fall leaving a woody structure), and herbaceous perennial (those that die back completely to the ground in the fall and emerge again in the spring).

Vines help to artfully blend architecture with the garden. They can be used as a screen to hide an unsightly fence or wall. They add a layer, or veil, of texture or color to any vertical structure. They can be grown up a tree, and through or over another plant or shrub thereby extending that plant's time and area of interest. They can even be used as a ground cover. And as an added benefit, they can be grown in situations where other plants would not have enough room to survive.

Vines have several different methods of climbing, which is important to remember when choosing the right plant. You have to keep in mind the surface that the vine will grow on. Some vines, like ivy (Hedera helix), support themselves by growing aerial roots along the stem, that attach to the surface. Others, like the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), grow small tendrils with adhesive pads on the tips. Still others have stem or petioles (leaf stalks) that twine, or grow tendrils from their stems or leaves that twine. Vines that twine require a surface like lattice or wire, and often need some guidance, especially when young, to direct their growth. And then there are the climbing roses, which are not really climbers at all, but instead have hooked thorns that help to hang on (they are usually tied for additional support).

Pruning vines can be a daunting task, and not all vines require pruning. If your plant is young, or a weak grower, you will need only a minimal prune. However if your plant is in a confined area, and well established, chances are you will need to prune more often to contain it and keep it healthy. The most important factor to consider when pruning is a vine's blooming period. In general if it blooms in the spring to early summer on growth it has produced last year then you would prune it after it blooms. If it blooms midsummer on, then it probably is blooming on this year's growth and should be pruned after it blooms in the late fall, or better yet in late winter or early spring. However, Vines grown only for their foliage can be pruned at any time, although the general rule is that those vines that are deciduous should be pruned in the fall, and those that are evergreen in the spring. Annual and herbaceous perennial vines rarely if ever require pruning. I will write more about pruning as we go through the most common vines in this area.

One common vine familiar to everyone is Ivy (Hedera helix). The reason for it's familiarity is because it is a very adaptable plant. It flurshes in sun or shade, and grows in any soil, though it prefers to have moist soil high in organic matter. It is evergreen. It climbs by aerial roots grown along it's stem, and because of this, Ivy can be very destructive to the mortar of the buildings it grows on, and many institutions are removing it from their buildings. Ivy can also be used as a ground cover if care is taken to keep it away from the base of trees, as it provides a perfect winter cover for mice that may chew on a tree's bark, and can overwhelm a tree that it is allowed to grow up. On occasion Ivy can be bothered by spider mites, and sun and wind damage in the winter. There are some Ivies that are variegated with yellow or white in their leaves and they are very stunning plants.

Another vine familiar to many of us is the Honeysuckle. Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) can be seen growing along the roads in hedges and along the edge of woodlands. It is an extreme environmental problem due to it's very aggressive nature and was probably first introduced for it's fragrant flowers. There are other honeysuckles better suited for our gardens. All honeysuckles are twiners and will need some support. They thrive in fertile soil in full sun. They attract hummingbirds with their tubular flowers, which vary in their flower time. The flowers range from red, to pink with yellow center, to bright yellow. Some are fragrant, some are not, and some are repeat bloomers. They should be pruned in late winter or after they flower. Aphids and spider mites can be problems.

A vine that will soon come to our attention is the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). It is a very adaptable plant, able to grow in any soil type, sun or shade, and is tolerant of salt and city conditions. It is grown for it's foliage which turns bright red in the early fall. It is one of the first woody plants to show fall color and it is brilliant. It attaches by means of adhesive disc, and can be considered a vigorous grower. The flowers are of no ornamental importance, but the berries, which are blue and pea sized, provide valuable winter fruit for birds. If you have a big sunny spot in your yard or garden to fill, the vine to do it is the Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans). This vine is native to this area. An extremely vigorous grower, it can grow 10 feet in one year, and ultimate reach 30 to 40 feet. trumpet Vines can be invasive, sending up shoots up 30 to 40 feet away, and needs vigorous pruning in the winter to keep it in check. It flowers best on a hot sunny wall and tolerate wet soils. (Growing it in impoverished soils will also help to keep it in check.) It flowers in clusters of 4 to 12 tubular shaped, apricot to salmon-red, flowers that hummingbirds adore. However, its flowers, which can be awesome, only occur after it becoming established, which sometimes takes as long as 3-5 years, thought its worth the wait.

Clematis and Wisteria

Of all the garden vines per haps the most popular is clematis. There is a huge number of species and cultivars to choose from. Clematis comes in a wide variety of colors and flower shapes which bloom from spring until fall, after which they continue their show with ornamental seed heads. Clematis mix well with other vines, but the most classic combination is with roses. They look great growing tip a trellis or lattice, through shrubs, or as a simple ground cover.

Clematis that flower in the spring and early summer should be pruned after they finish flowering. This allows time for new shoots and foliage to grow, which will support next year's flowers. Those that bloom in the summer and fall can be pruned in late winter.

Clematis prefer a moist loamy soil, and will do well in a sunny to partially sunny spot. They will not be happy if their roots are allowed to dry out, so use plenty of mulch or shade their roots with other plants. The most common mistake made when growing clematis is not planting it deeply enough, at least 4 inches deeper than the surface of the soil in the pot in which they grow. There are two advantages to a deep planting: 1) new roots will form along the buried stem making the plant more vigorous, and 2) underground buds will remain in reserve in case the top of the plant should break, or die back from clematis wilt.

Clematis wilt is due to a fungus that causes light brown spots on the leaves. It spreads down the stems and causes the plant to wilt. All dead, or dying, parts of the plant should be removed, even if it means cutting it to the ground. Donít worry, Clematis can survive pruning to the ground, especially if it has been planted correctly.

Another very popular vine is wisteria. Once you have see wisteria in bloom you will never forget it. Wisteria can be a very, very big vine, with some species growing 10-20 feet in one year, and having a trunk that is several inches across. A vigorous grower, it climbs by twining and needs a good strong support like an arbor, pergola, house or porch. Wisteria can even be trained and pruned into the shape of a small tree. They like a sunny spot with moist soil.

Wisteria flowers are small and grouped into long clusters reminiscent of grape clusters. The flowers are various shades of lavender in color, though white flowers are available. Some are very fragrant, others not as much so. When wisteria flowers depends on the species. Chinese Wisteria (wisteria sinensis) blooms in May before the leaves on the plant come out, so it is quite an impressive sight. Japanese Wisteria (wisteria florabunda) blooms as its leaves are coming out in late May, early June.

Both of these wisteria are strong growers and need regular pruning to keep the vine flowering. Out native wisteria (wisteria fruteseens) is not as vigorous and requires less pruning. It flowers after the leaves come out in June and continues to flower until August. While it is a little as dramatic then the other two Wisteria, it lasts longer.

One very important thing to remember about wisteria - they sometimes take up to seven years to bloom, so if you want flowers right away, consider other plants. However if you've the time and the space, wisteria will not disappoint you with their show.

There are many vines that are annuals, which means they will. I grow for only one season. So if I you have an area in your garden where you think you'd like to try a vine, try an annual one first.

Read other articles on shrubs and Vines

Read other gardening articles by Audrey Hillman