Vines for the Connoisseur

These sophisticated climbers will add an intriguing twist to your garden

Fine Gardening - Issue 166

Climbers add a depth and complexity to the garden that just can’t be achieved with perennials and shrubs. The sweeping flow and layered effects vines provide give a landscape a whole new palette of color, form, and fragrance. They are also valuable weapons against garden enemies, capable of hiding the neighbor’s rusty chain-link fence or—worse—their backyard crud piles (or your own crud piles). Vines, however, do take work. Whether it’s winter pruning, summer training, or outright stoppage of their sometimes overly ambitious nature, they often need a firm hand and a sharp pair of shears. But the maintenance they may require pales in comparison to all they can provide. Anyone who has been to a garden center or two has seen the usual selection of climbing plants: large-flowered clematis or perhaps the standard climbing roses. These are not necessarily bad plants, but there are better options for someone who longs for something more interesting and much more eye-catching.


Climbing Carolina aster is beautiful and beneficial

Name: Ampelaster carolinianus

Climbing Carolina aster

Climbing Carolina aster

Climbing Carolina aster is a favorite for late fall and winter flowers. It is native to the southeastern U.S. but is also at home in the West and fairly cold climates up north (returning each spring with vigor). In the southern reaches of its zonal range, it will grow tallest and can be partially or fully evergreen. Once established, it is low care and drought tolerant, forming a dense clump with many stems. Each fall, it can carry hundreds of fragrant lavender, 2-inch-wide flowers. Climbing Carolina aster has a habit much like a climbing rose in that it has long, arching stems and benefits from some training as it climbs. It’s also a good idea to thin the stems from time to time to keep the plants somewhat tidy. Because it blooms so late, it can be cut back hard each year. When most other plants are bare, this plant is still flowering, offering pollinators a meal when nothing else is available.

USDA Hardiness Zones: 6 to 10

Size: 8 to 12 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; moist, well-drained soil


Groundnut is an attractive, nutritious climber


Name: Apios americana

This native vine has a broad range in much of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Although groundnut is typically found along moist, open areas and riversides, it can be grown in many garden situations as long as the site has decent drainage. Each spring, new shoots arise from underground tubers and grow rapidly with a tight, twining twist. These stems can easily find and climb just about anything, except large-diameter tree trunks.

By midsummer, the stems will begin to show small racemes of dusky red to maroon pealike flowers with a sweet fragrance. These clusters are numerous and appear all along the upper portions of the stems from late spring to early fall, depending on climate. A cute little bean results if pollination occurs. Groundnut was known to Native Americans as a valuable source of food. The beans are edible, but the main food value of this vine is its tubers. Given ideal conditions, it will form a thick colony, so be careful when choosing a site. Luckily, digging it up to keep it in check yields a tasty, nutritious meal.

Zones: 4 to 8

Size: 15 to 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist soil


Fiona Sunrise jasmine lights up the dullest spots

Name: Jasminum officinale ‘Frojas’

Fiona Sunrise jasmine

This is a brilliant vine—literally. It has golden to chartreuse foliage that remains beautiful and bright even at maturity. Fiona Sunrise jasmine has been successfully grown from Zone 6 Pennsylvania, where it fills in quickly each year, to the considerably hotter South and Midwest, where many other golden-leaved plants burn up. Because it’s a true jasmine, the fragrance of its small white flowers can’t be beat. The stems even retain their gorgeous neon green-yellow color in winter after the leaves have dropped. That’s the right time to look over the whole plant to see if it needs to be thinned out a bit because the loose-twining Fiona Sunrise is best tidied up from time to time.

Zones: 6 to 9

Size: 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil


‘Lemon Bells’ clematis is unlike any variety you’ve seen before

Name: Clematis chiisanensis ‘Lemon Bells’

‘Lemon Bells’ clematis

The leaves of this unique clematis have a coarse texture and a rich green color, while its stems mature to a deep purple—almost black—hue. The stems contrast nicely with the bright yellow flowers, which appear from late spring to midsummer. Each blossom is a pleasing yellow with tones of red at the base. After flowering, the fluffy tails of the seed heads remain on the plant into winter. ‘Lemon Bells’ clematis likes to wrap its petioles around any slender object like twine, wire, or the stems of a neighboring plant (thankfully, it won’t choke the host plant). This is a pruning type 1 clematis, flowering on old wood. Don’t cut it back in winter, or the following season’s flowers will be sacrificed. The only pruning it needs is a shaping or cleaning up after it has finished blooming.

Zones: 5 to 9

Size: 6 to 10 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil


‘Anastasia’ passion flower adds an exotic flair to a garden or container

‘Anastasia’ passion flower

Name: Passiflora ‘Anastasia’

For most gardeners, ‘Anastasia’ passion flower isn’t hardy but can still provide months of beauty to the landscape. Treat it as an annual, planting it outside only after nights are consistently above 55°F and the soil has warmed. This relatively new hybrid is known for its easy care and potential to bloom all summer in mild climates.

Although it may seem crazy to invest a chunk of change on a single annual, this unusual vine can beautify dozens of square feet all summer. For gardeners with enough room, it can even be grown in a large container and brought inside for winter. Be sure to use a large container because a full-size plant will need plenty of water. Passion flowers can take a break from flowering in the heat of summer, especially if they’re grown in full sun. Limiting the sun exposure to mornings only can help ensure blooming. ‘Anastasia’ produces tendrils that reach out straight, then coil, pulling and holding it to stems, wires, or trellises. Regular applications of bloom-boosting fertilizer will help this stunner perform its best.

Zones: 10 to 11

Size: 10 to 15 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; moist, fertile soil


Indian clock vine looks like a red and yellow wisteria—but it’s not invasive

Name: Thunbergia mysorensis

Indian clock vine

Indian clock vine needs to be kept warm and moist in summer and allowed to be a bit drier, but not cold, in winter. In northern climates, it must be grown in a greenhouse or a container and brought inside. I recommend growing it up and over an arbor or other structure, which allows the racemes to hang down for the best display. The gorgeous red and yellow flowers can reach 3 feet long. Each blossom generates copious quantities of nectar that, in the plant’s native tropical habitat, is consumed by sunbirds but elsewhere is enjoyed by hummingbirds. In the warmest climates, it can flower continuously throughout the year, but farther north, it may be cut back to be brought inside.

Zones: 9 to 11

Size: 15 to 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil


Raspberry Cream Twirl climbing rose is as carefree as it is stunning

Raspberry Cream Twirl™ climbing rose

Name: Rosa ‘Meiteratol’

Although roses have always been popular garden plants, they’re often plagued by pests and diseases. Fortunately, many modern rose breeders are developing varieties like Raspberry Cream Twirl™ that have impressive blooms and exceptional disease resistance. Blooming begins in spring with double (100-plus petal counts apiece), striped, slightly fragrant flowers showing up in clusters. The show continues through summer and into fall.

Climbing roses need to be trained since they don’t twine or cling. A handful of well-placed ties holding the stems to a wire or trellis is usually all that’s needed. Just be sure to add a support or two at the top of the plant so the weight of all those flowers doesn’t pull Raspberry Cream Twirl™ over on a windy day. Dead and crossed canes should be removed, and other canes can be trimmed back annually to encourage vigorous flowering.

Zones: 6 to 10

Size: 8 to 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil


Silvervein creeper is gorgeous and manageable

Name: Parthenocissus henryana

Silvervein creeper

The genus Parthenocissus is known throughout the gardening world for being big and covering lots of surface area. Unfortunately, this also means it can be a garden thug, with many species growing up to 100 square feet at maturity. Silvervein creeper, on the other hand, is much more restrained in size and vigor. This self-clinging vine has tendrils that form pads that will hold onto the surface of all but the most slippery supports. It’s especially effective growing up walls, where it will form a single layer and not harm the surface itself. This beautiful vine can actually reduce cooling costs of a home.

In fall, silvervein creeper turns a beautiful red, rivaling the color of the rambunctious Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Zones 7–9). In winter, the foliage drops away, allowing the sun’s warmth to reach the wall once again. Wind and rain usually flush away any buildup of dead organic matter, the true culprit in damaging walls. As dead matter breaks down, humic acid is generated, which can dissolve mortar and give the false impression that the vine itself is somehow damaging the surface.

Zones: 6 to 10

Size: 12 to 18 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

A Shrub Makes a Great Trellis

A trellis or arbor, well made and well placed, can be a thing of beauty, but they’re not the only appropriate home for your vines. Many clematis, for example, are particularly well suited to climbing through other plants. They won’t harm their hosts as long as a few precautions are taken.

Illustration of a hydrangea with a vine the same height

1. Choose a vine that suits the host.

For example, an 8-foot-tall hydrangea can support a vine that has about the same mature size. Avoid a monster vine unless the host is also large.

2. Pick the right pruning type.

Illustration showing pruning type 2 on the left and pruning type 3 on the right

If your vine is a clematis, choose a pruning type 2 (left) or 3 (right) variety. This enables the clematis to be pruned back annually when the shrub is dormant.

illustration showing to plant vine at least 1-ft away from the base of the host

3. Plant at least a foot away from the base of the host.

This inhibits any potential root-ball damage to the host.

4. Hide the bare legs.

Vines are great for covering the ugly, bare legs of vase-shaped shrubs or the spindly base of a larger vine (i.e., a climbing rose). This is often the best host/vine pairing.

illustration of tree in spring and tree in summer, with vines covering the trunk in summer

Dan Long is the owner of Brushwood Nursery, which specializes in vines and climbers in Athens, Georgia.

Photos: Doreen Wynja;; Michelle Gervais; Andrea Jones/;  Annie Green-Armytage/; and courtesy of Star Roses and Plants. Illustrations: Elara Tanguy.


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