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Those Unruly, Vexing, Delightful Vines: Midwest Natives with Attitude and Impact

Purple passionflower.

Yes! vines can be exasperatingly aggressive: it’s their nature. Even those that grow in shade are always seeking sunlight, and in their quest they clamber over everything: not only the structures with which we so thoughtfully provide them, but over any support in sight, including other plants. They vigorously re-seed or dispatch runners to spawn even more light-gathering shoots in beds where they’re not wanted. No wonder some of our worst invasive plants are vines: winter creeper, English ivy, Asian bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle—the Dread Kudzu.

But what is more charming than a flowering vine over an arbor, creating a leafy, perfumed gateway into a garden space; or softening and greening a fence; or providing shaded sanctuary beneath a pergola?

If you have a place in your landscape for a vine, there are some native plant options; aggressive, yes, but technically not invasive. What’s the difference? Vines native to the Midwest are an age-old part of the regional ecosystem, and as such provide not only flowers for pollinators, fruit for birds and mammals, nesting sites and cover—but crucially, food for the caterpillars with which they’ve co-evolved. In addition to being the next generation of pollinators, caterpillars are fundamental to the food chain; they’re essential for raising nestlings, even those of seed-eating birds. Our Indiana caterpillars are not adapted to eating any of the nonnative vines mentioned above—indeed, one of the reason such plants become invasive is that they have few leaf predators.

Here are several vines native to our area that will benefit wildlife and the ecosystem--all while bringing a new dimension of color and fragrance to your surroundings:

Purple Passionflower or Passionvine (Passiflora incarnata). In August and September, this vine produces a progression of beautiful and bizarre purple flowers that emit a heady perfume. Although ants and small bees partake of the sweetness oozing from the fringed nectary, large carpenter bees are the primary pollinator. The anthers and stigmas hang down over the nectar, at just the right height to deposit pollen on - or pick it up from - a foraging bee's fuzzy thorax. The plant also attracts ants with nectar glands on its leaf petioles; the ants, guarding their precious resource, protect the plant from herbivores. Nevertheless, passionvine is the host plant for several butterfly species in the southern U.S., and in Indiana it is food for the caterpillar of the variegated fritillary. The vine prefers full sun to part shade and well-drained soil; it is drought-tolerant once established. I trellis it at the back of a flower bed; it pops up in various places throughout the bed, and even in the lawn. I hand-pull or mow unwanted shoots. Passionflowers produce a tart green fruit, edible but peculiar.

Anthers and stigmas are oriented downward. Although small insects partake of the flower's copious nectar, its pollination mechanism is geared toward large bees.

Bright yellow pollen dusts the thoraxes of carpenter bees as they forage for nectar. On another bloom the pollen will stick to receptive stigmas.

Extrafloral nectaries attract ants, which guard the plant from herbivores.

Dutchman’s Pipe or Pipevine (Aristolochia sp.). The heart-shaped leaves of this vine overlap to form a dense, lush growth perfect for creating shade. The pipe-shaped flowers aren’t showy, but they certainly are interesting. Pollinated by flies, the blooms often hide beneath the leaves, where they beckon insects into their dark, and in some species, carrion-scented chambers. Pipevines prefer rich, moist soil and sun to part shade. The Aristolochia genus is the sole food source for the caterpillar of the gorgeous pipevine swallowtail butterfly. My woolly pipevine (A. tomentosa) hosts a large number of caterpillars every summer.

Like many fly-pollinated flowers, the dutchman's pipe bloom mimics flesh and blood, compelling the carrion-eating insects to crawl inside its convoluted passageway.

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar.

Pipevine swallowtail butterfly.

Trumpet-creeper (Capsis radicans). I think of this as the classic Indiana summertime vine, its bold flame-colored flowers visible along fencerows of country roads and highways throughout the state. It is bold in habit as well and notoriously inclined to invade garden beds, work its way under siding and into foundations, and even strangle trees. Best to give it a sturdy support with plenty of room to roam, and control growth by pruning and dead-heading. In turn, you will be rewarded by hummingbird visitations, as hummers are the prime pollinators of the trumpet-shaped red blooms. Trumpet vine is sun-loving and drought-tolerant, and provides food for the trumpet vine sphinx moth. It has an equally robust cousin in extreme southern Indiana, the red-and-yellow-flowered crossvine.

Coral or Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Less aggressive than trumpet-vine, this native honeysuckle also attracts hummingbirds to its trumpet-shaped pink-and-yellow flowers, as well as bumblebees and the diurnal snowberry clearwing moth. Although it can grow in part shade, it will produce more flowers in full sun, and prefers rich soil. Coral honeysuckle is most content growing over an arbor where it can get plenty of airflow; against a fence or wall it is susceptible to powdery mildew. It provides food for the caterpillars of several moths, including both snowberry and hummingbird clearwings. I know of one trellised individual that regularly shelters a robin’s nest.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). This native clematis blooms in late summer with profuse frothy and fragrant white flowers, and offers an alternative to the invasive sweet autumn clematis. It prefers moist soil and tolerates considerable shade. The distinctive feathery seed heads of the female plants add interest in autumn (as well as copious re-seeding). The flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies, and the leaves are food for the brown bark carpet moth caterpillar. A rather delicate twiner, virgin's bower grows well on wire fences and other fine climbing structures.

Virgin's bower in seed, keeping company with blue-fruited arrowwood viburnum.

Virginia Creeper. I’ve never had to plant this vine, as I live on the edge of a woods and it fills in every suitable niche around my house. Virginia creeper makes a fine ground cover in shady spots—in my garden it fills in between the wildflowers and ferns without smothering them, as winter creeper would. It readily climbs trees, but when it starts scrabbling up the house and window screens, it can be easily pulled off (it does leave those little sticky pads behind, remnants of a climbing apparatus that means this vine doesn’t require trellising). The flowers of Virginia Creeper aren’t showy, but birds--especially thrushes—relish the small blue-black fruits and migrants gorge on it as they head south in fall. The vine supports several caterpillar species, including five sphinx moths, important night-shift pollinators. As for fall color, it is unsurpassed where the leaves are exposed to sun, adding to the brilliant reds of early autumn.

Virginia creeper in early October.

All photographs copyright Gillian Harris.


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