By Karin Beuerlein
Adding a vigorous native vine to your backyard habitat brings all kinds of fun surprises. All of those surprises are pleasant—as long as you don’t plant something that’s enthusiastic bordering on psychotic, or poorly sized for the space. And you may occasionally find a pair of eyes that you weren’t expecting staring back at you from amid the leaves, so if that’s not your idea of fun, plant the vine somewhere besides where you sit to relax.
This month, I’m recommending one of my favorites, crossvine (Bignonia capreolata); this is the cultivar ‘Tangerine Beauty’ on my backyard arbor. Crossvine is a common recommendation for attracting hummingbirds, and while that’s true later in summer, I’ve yet to see a single hummingbird visit it in peak glory. Crossvine explodes into bloom in late April, then takes several weeks of rest, and then begins blooming sporadically again through summer and into fall. That’s when the hummingbirds in my yard make full use of the flowers, and they like to perch on low loops away from the thick foliage.
Having crossvine in my yard has shown me the broad wildlife value that a flowering vine can bring. I allow mine to kink and loop pretty much wherever it wants to, creating a mysterious inner sanctum where things happen that I’m not in charge of. Song sparrows nest inside each spring, although they’re so sneaky it took me several years to figure it out. Tree frogs shelter in the crannies. Bees and other insects feast on the pollen. Cardinals dodge hawks by disappearing into the tangle. And, if I’m being totally honest, sometimes what looks like an arm of the vine turns out to be a blacksnake, or even a pair of them hunting bluebird babies in tandem, which was why all my bluebird boxes got removed from the arbor and mounted on baffled poles.
(Public service announcement: please remember that snakes in your backyard habitat are a sign of good ecological function—don’t try to get rid of them.)
Crossvine is not the same thing as trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), which swallows up edge habitats in summer and runs rampant over pretty much anything it comes into contact with. Trumpet vine is a native Southeastern plant, but it’s too aggressive for a backyard garden. Crossvine gives you a similar beautiful look without the bloodthirsty attitude. In my clay soil, ‘Tangerine Beauty’ has grown 20 feet long over about eight years. It reseeds lightly, giving me a few extra plants to place around the garden, and remains partially clothed in leaves through the winter. Bonus: it’s a larval host for the rustic sphinx moth.
It goes without saying here on this blog, but never plant non-native invasive vines such as Chinese or Japanese wisteria, chocolate vine, sweet autumn clematis, or oriental bittersweet. In fact, if you have that stuff, seriously consider giving it the axe this spring and replacing with crossvine or other natives—as it happens, the wisteria, clematis, and bittersweet all have native American cousins that are lovely, underappreciated plants and provide important resources for wildlife.