Gardening : Going up with climbers

I’m sure almost everyone at one time or another has wondered how to soften a corner or an unsightly wall. Often the solution to these types of problems can come in the shape of a climbing plant, nature’s garden gymnasts. With a vast range to choose from, they offer a plethora of differing interests: from size and habit to leaf colour and form, flowers of all types and sometimes with the added bonus of edible fruit. Indeed, on closer inspection, they also have a fascinating array of methods with which they achieve this verticality, ranging from the ability to lean against or twine around an existing structure to the growth of aerial roots, stickers, clingers or tendrils – to name just a handful of the thirty ways in which these plants can grow upwards without the aid of a large self-supporting trunk. While a vine twining around a cane may look simple, have you ever stopped for a moment to ponder how this is achieved? Actually, this is a science all on its own: the stems react to the external contact of the stem on a surface, initiating the elongation of the cells in the opposite side of the stem resulting in the well known twisting effect. More interesting is the question as to why over ninety percent of all climbing plants twist in one direction ... but I digress.

Ground rules for climbers

Climbers are in some cases relatively delicate plants, and even the sturdiest benefit greatly from good support. Indeed, some, such as the Bougainvillaea (Bougainvillea glabra sanderiana) will positively suffer if left flapping in the wind as the delicate roots that leave the stem at ground level are easily broken if the stem is moved around excessively. Others such as the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) will attach strongly to a wall but still needs help when first planted to ensure good contact with its supporting surface. As a ground rule, when you plant your climbers, they should always be well attached to the wall with several fixations.

The more memorable climbers are the most showy, and of these probably the best know in our region is the Bougainvillea glabra sanderiana. A fantastic plant, it produces almost endless flower but needs protection from any temperatures below zero in the winter months (when it also does not look fantastic). This is a small price to pay though, for the splendid colour it provides during the summer season. Be careful: frost burns and over-watering rapidly rot their roots. An alternative flashy flower but with the advantage of not being tender is the Campsis x tagliabuana “Madame Galen”, a trumpet vine that is positively hard as nails. For months during the summer it will produce fantastic displays of orange-yellow flowers, although I’ve noticed they have a rather bizarre tendency to attract ants.

Do not be afraid

My current personal favourites are perhaps slightly more understated: I find the more subtle beauty in some of these plants to be more rewarding in the longer term. Of these, the big winner has to be Wisteria floribunda with its fantastic panicles of blue or white flowers which hang down in the early summer and whose gentle scent reminds me of when I was young (we had an ancient specimen which adorned the front door to our house). Easy to grow and with a lush light green leaf, it is pleasant on the eye even when not in flower. Another staple plant is the evergreen jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides, which although very commonly used is still unbeatable for its tolerance to the cold, beautiful glossy green foliage, measured growth habit and full and extended gloriously scented flowering.

Lastly, a couple of plants which hardly produce any visible flowers: the lesser-known dwarf fig, Ficus pumila grows (slowly) as a fantastic carpet across any hard surface. Normally its foliage is a small green compact type; however this is actually the immature foliage. The dwarf fig’s mature foliage is sometimes mistaken to be another species as it is thick and much larger in size, but if this breaks out, a simple shearing back should suffice to keep the plant in the immature mode of growth. Perhaps surprisingly, I have also found that the humble ivy, Hedera helix, when used as a ground cover can be really attractive interspersed with other plants that provide contrast to it, or as a carpet to show off an avenue of trees. Do not be afraid to keep plantings simple and remember: More does not always mean more beautiful.

From Riviera Reporter Issue 126: April/May 2008