There is an old expression that goes like this: “Doctors bury their mistakes, architects plant ivy”. Admittedly, this is a crude analogy but it is very true that vines can cover a multitude of sins. Perhaps a more positive way to put it is that vines have the ability to soften the edges of our structures, be they buildings or fences, and in the process create a more pleasant environment in which to recreate. A classic example of this would be ‘Boston Ivy’ or ‘Virginia Creeper’, both of which have been famously planted on many an Ivy League College campus. Here on the west coast you can find these same deciduous vines that turn a vibrant red, yellow, and orange in the fall planted along our freeways on those concrete sound barrier walls.
It’s not hard to grow vines, for the most part they are vigorous and will establish quickly. The one exception, in my experience, is Hydrangea petiolaris (aka climbing hydrangea) which pokes along for a couple of years before it finally decides to make some tracks, but even then it is well-behaved and only requires minor pruning to keep it in check. It is a “self-clinging” vine (like the above mentioned ‘Boston Ivy’ and ‘Virginia Creeper’), which simply means that it puts out little aerial roots along the stems that will adhere to any surface, such as a tree trunk or a wood or masonry wall. They will not damage those surfaces, but will leave a scar when the vine is removed and in the case of wood siding, will require some serious scraping before you can repaint (a small price to pay for the enjoyment you will receive).
Climbing hydrangea vines are popular to plant in shaded areas of the garden. I have an established one on the north side of the fence surrounding my deck. But to tell you the truth, most of the growth has found its way over to the south side (or should I say the “Sunnyside”) where it is quite happy and only occasionally sunburns if the summer temps get into the high 80’s or low 90’s. While the leaves of this vine are a glossy dark green, there is a variety with attractive yellow margins called ‘Miranda’ and I spotted a good specimen the other day growing on the east wall of the old Anderson School in Bothell, which is now a McMenamins hotel. You should go check it out and while you are at it, tour the grounds to see some amazing plant material (one of the trademarks of the McMenamins hotels).
Another one of my favorite vines is Akebia quinata or ‘chocolate vine’. This almost-evergreen vine is fast growing, tolerates sun or shade, has fragrant flowers, and if two or more are planted together will produce a sausage shaped edible fruit (which is almost as disgusting looking inside as is a fig). The name comes from the chocolate colored flowers, but in my opinion the best growing variety is one called ‘Shirobana’ which has white flowers. I have found that once established, shearing this vine back to sticks just after it blooms in early spring keeps it under control and a whole lot more attractive. Truth be known, sometimes I forego the flowers and shear it back before it blooms since it is the foliage that I mostly enjoy.
Several years ago I spotted an enchanting vine growing between two buildings in downtown Friday Harbor. It was smothered with dainty yellow heart shaped flowers just like the beloved bleeding heart perennial that we all have growing in our shade gardens, only these flowers were yellow and it was a vine. I discovered it was a Climbing Yellow Bleeding Heart vine (Dicentra scandens aka: Dactylicapnos scandens) and it is a virtual flowering machine, producing thousands of yellow, heart-shaped flowers from April through November. I finally got my hands on one two years ago and planted it under my 'Meriken' Ginko where the first year it didn’t do a whole lot. This year has been a different story and it has gone absolutely nuts growing over the Ginko, onto an adjacent shade structure in the nursery, and in and out of the lattice of the fence surrounding my hot tub. While I thought this was a shade loving vine (it is planted in the shade of the Ginko), all of the growth is in full sun and it is one happy camper.
There are so many wonderful vines to incorporate into our northwest gardens that I wish I had more space to expound. Perhaps in the future we can spend one whole column just on Clematis. In the meantime, try to find a few places to incorporate a vine or two - three years from now you’ll be glad you did.