Clinging vines

Morning glory ‘Heavenly Blue.’ —Toshiro Matsui/Flickr

Morning glory ‘Heavenly Blue.’ —Toshiro Matsui/Flickr

There’s something fascinating about a plant with upward mobility — vines like to scramble their way to the top and you’d be hard pressed to stop them.

I’ve had experience with several clingers and twiners, some of it good, some of it bad, some of it mysterious and some of it sort of hilarious. It hasn’t been dull.

There was the year when I thought I’d grow morning glories over the arch at the entrance to my main garden. While it’s true that these tend not to bloom until late in the season, there is no real substitute for those saucer-shaped flowers of ‘Heavenly Blue.’ I would trek daily out through the morning dew to join these prolific bloomers in welcoming the new day.

Early in the season, I wondered whether my vines would ever cover their support. By mid-season they had created a solid dome of foliage, and by late August, the leafage was so thick I found myself bending low to creep though the tunnel of vine. I would call this plant’s growth habit exuberant, to say the least.

Then came a day I approached the garden, coffee in hand and perhaps a bit muzzy-headed with sleep. Something was different; something was...wrong. Nothing remained on my arch — 7 from side to side, 9 feet high, 2 feet in depth — but a skeletal fretwork of morning glory stems. Every single leaf, bud and blossom had had vanished, and this in the space of no more than 48 hours.

What could have done this? There was no sign that deer had entered the garden, and precious little chance they might have reached all of the vines from outside the garden gate. Woodchucks? I've seen them climb 20 feet up into my mulberry, but somehow couldn't picture them clinging athletically to the widely-spaced steel struts of my arch. Possum? Gee, with all those teeth, are they really into leafy greens?

Scarlet runner bean. — blumenbiene/Creative Commons

Scarlet runner bean. — blumenbiene/Creative Commons

I considered a plague of locusts, but it seemed unlikely that they would leave every other plant in the garden untouched. I never did figure out who was the culprit, but it sure was spooky. My explanation: Space aliens ate my morning glories.

I've also grown vines that didn't live up to expectation: "Climbing" nasturtiums that sprawled on the ground, clematis that wouldn't bloom, and thready cypress vine that, while pretty in a diminutive way, was never going to cover a trellis.

Last year on the same garden arch, I grew scarlet runner beans. This was a huge success with the hummingbirds, which fed enthusiastically on the bright red flowers, but a nuisance for the gardener. The vines produced huge numbers of beans that were the size of your pinky one day, longer than your foot the next, or so it seemed.

You have to cull these to keep the plant blooming, and inevitably I got to them when they were well past eating size. They are said to be edible, in the pod when young and as shelled beans when mature (the beans are bright, shocking pink), but I never seemed to get the harvest right. All I had was endless fodder for the compost pile and a crick in my neck from bean pod pruning.

This year I'm reprising two old favorites. On the same garden arch, I'm doing hyacinth bean vine ( Dolichos lablab ). This plant is a drama in three acts, with purple-suffused leaves, sprays of pink pea-like flowers and flat pods of shiny, patent-leather red or purple. They don't form pods until late in the season, and the pods themselves are ornamental, so none of that odious culling is necessary.

Moonflower vine. — Mark Kempe/Creative Commons

Moonflower vine. — Mark Kempe/Creative Commons

For the walled garden at the entrance to my backyard, I'm cultivating a moonflower vine. This little guy I bought as a seedling at the local garden center is growing like gangbusters, even though these vines are said to seriously resent transplanting.

I don't expect flowers until late in the season - it's always a race to see how many flowers you'll get before frost cuts the vine down. But moonflower is so spectacular you can't resent the brevity of the show. Picture a fat, white bud twisted into a spiral, a bud that may remind you of an ice cream cone. At dusk, the bud unwinds into a huge flower perhaps 6 inches across, rivaling any amaryllis you may have grown.

Blossoming happens quickly enough that you can stand there and watch this outrageous, fragrant flower fling itself open. Each lasts until the morning sun kisses its petals, whereupon it droops into a limp heap of plant-stuff and is finito.

The last time I grew these, I put them on the fence surrounding my main garden way down there in the corner of the yard farthest from the house. To see my vines in bloom, I had to trek down there with a flashlight - really, this was bad planning.

The new vine is not only near the house, but plainly visible from my screened porch, that favorite nighttime perch. Plus, it is decently well lit by a low wattage spotlight high on the house wall, which should make my moonflowers shine in the darkness.

Hah! Who says an old gardener can't learn new tricks? I'm keeping my sneakers dry and my flashlight in the cupboard this season. Bring on the moonflowers and we'll toast them in civilized fashion: seated, with a glass of fine wine.