Those evil vines


Here's last week's Kirkus post. And be sure to read Susan's post today about the art of gardening.

I had been meaning to write about Allan Armitage's vines and climbers book for some time. In my small garden, sometimes the only way to go is up, so I've been a big vine fan for some time. But some of the vines I depend on are anathema to other gardeners.


Allan Armitage has a sensible attitude about aggressive climbers. It’s much like mine. If a given vine is a thug on your property, rampaging over other plants, clambering up trees, and smothering any trellis that you’ve put up to contain it, then don’t grow it. But don’t try to make it impossible for anyone else in this big and diverse country to grow it.

Like many hyper-local endeavors, gardening does not readily adapt itself to one-size-fits-all advisories, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the area of vigorous plants. Ficus, a rowdy tree that uproots California sidewalks, has to get along as a houseplant in Vermont.  Colocasia (elephant ear) is invading wetlands in Texas and Florida, but in the Northeast its bulbs are carefully overwintered so the huge exotic leaves can adorn summer patios.

This is why I love Armitage’s Vines and Climbers (Timber, 2010). As a Georgia-based plant breeder, lecturer, and garden writer, Armitage could easily have left out such cultivars as wisteria, hedera (ivy), and ampelopsis (porcelain vine), plants that gardeners throughout the U.S. consider—at the very least—overly enthusiastic.

Indeed, many Southern gardeners I know would never allow a wisteria vine on their property, regardless of its graceful and beautifully scented lavender flowers. Things are different in Buffalo, N.Y. Summer visitors to my garden gaze up at my wisteria and ask wistfully “Has it bloomed yet?” The plants are notorious for their refusal to bloom until as many as ten seasons have passed, but they are cherished when they do flower. Even in Buffalo, the vine needs to be cut back regularly, and often works best when trained to a tree-shaped form, placed well away from any structures it might overwhelm.

While wisteria has its flowers to recommend it, hedera (ivy) has no such pleasing camouflage, and has to depend on its elegant foliage. You don’t see many defenders of ivy. Yet, where I live, I can point to situations—deep shade, a tree-root-choked soil—where hedera is the only groundcover that can survive. This year I plan to experiment with some unusual variegated ivies to see if they can get through a Buffalo winter; their ruffles, white, light green or silver markings, and other unusual features would make a welcome change from faltering grass, boring pachysandra, or bare dirt. Hedera is banned in the Pacific Northwest, and loathed in most of the warmer states, but in the colder zones, it still serves a welcome purpose. Allan Armitage readily admits hedera’s powerfully aggressive properties, but when discussing his experience with planting ivy, he takes a philosophic view far removed from the hysteria I usually see whenever ivy is discussed: “I can moan about how I had to rip the plants from the trees. I can complain about the need to keep the edges of the path trimmed every year and mutter about keeping it off the azaleas and rhodies. However, that is part of gardening and for me the net positive aspects of the planting were far greater than the negative.”

Even the tolerant Armitage finds it necessary to warn his readers about ampelopsis brevipedunculata (porcelain vine)—“I recommend talking to other gardeners or extension people in your area before growing it. We don’t need another kudzu.” —even as he praises it—“walking under these rampant leafy growers in the summer is a thrill.” It’s a big mystery to me. I have grown the green and white “Elegans” cultivar of this plant for a few years and have yet to get it to the stage where anyone taller than a small dog would be able to walk under it.

Whether you prefer to say it in Latin (de gustibus non est disputandum) or in the contemporary vernacular (your mileage may vary), assume that every gardener’s experience with a certain plant will be different. This recognition is what I most appreciate about Armitage’s survey, which includes over 115 plants, many with utterly unsullied reputations. The world of vertical plants is full of beauty—and some danger.  But it would have been a boring book had he left the danger out.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Yes I have tried growing Elegans in my Central Victoria, Australian garden and after a decade its still not above head height! Perhaps the decade of drought might have something to do with it. Here its a very rare plant indeed.

  2. Hear! Hear!

    With our difficult winters and trying springs, perennial vines of any sort are trying for us here in central Wisconsin. Maybe a copy of your blog needs to be sent to the Wisconsin DNR which has listed porcelain berry as an invasive in their NR-40, which gives them the freedom to come onto a property yank it out and bill the property owner.

  3. Rachelle, how does the DNR know you have porcelain berry on your property? Can they see it from the road? Do your neighbors’ call them up and tell them? And with the political climate in Wisconsin, unlikely there will be enough DNR workers to prowl the state searching out vines.

  4. I planted a wisteria on an arbor I built over a driveway entrance in Willow Creek California, Sunset zone 14. My neighbor planted one on his side of the arbor. He never watered his because of its location. Mine got watered because it was at the edge of the shrubbery. Mine took down the arbor after 10 years and is now entwined in the wire fence. His was barely up to the top of the arbor. Watering was all the difference.

  5. In the high deserts of Northern Nevada where even the sage brush is sparse and sickly just a picture of a vine is about the best I can do. I tried for ten years to grow a wisteria, 12 actually, and never got a bloom. Some years it was difficult just to keep it alive.

  6. On the other hand, I’m still pulling out suckers from the Wisteria I dug out in 2005. Suckers coming up 20-40 away from where the beast was planted. While it was here it needed pruning every weekend all of summer and fall.

  7. Elizabeth, you KNOW I love this, don’t you! Thanks for this rational and level-headed discussion about vines and invasives. I haven’t read Allan’s book, but am now adding it to my summer list!

  8. Indeed, something’s invasiveness depends entirely on where you are–my grandmother struggled for years to grow a honeysuckle in Oregon, and I’ve struggled for years to get rid of it here in North Carolina, where it EATS THE WORLD.

    However, I do hope that people actually pay attention to whether something IS invasive in their area and don’t assume books like this give them permission to plant whatever they want because hey, the book says it’s fine! If it’s pretty, surely it can’t be invasive where I live! (etc etc) I’ve spent too much time wrenching out some very hostile vines to want any more added to the pile, when there are such awesome vines out there that are pretty, hardy, and don’t hurt anybody.

    I’m a big fan of pipevines, crossvines, and the rather more obscure American peppervine and American bittersweet, myself, and I live in the heart of Bad Wisteria country, but have been very happy to grow an American wisteria up the deck. There’s usually options available.

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