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Native cross vine creates picture-perfect arbor or trellis

My jaw dropped as I stared at the most beautiful cross vine used to perfection. It is a rare garden I visit where the native cross vine is used to its true potential, but such is the case at home in Savannah, Ga.’s beautiful historic district. The Victorian Style home was painted a golden apricot that served as a stunning backdrop.

I’ve got cross vine growing wild in my yard climbing southern wax myrtle but that is a far cry from the one I saw on a recent weekend. The cross vine, also called quarter vine, is known botanically as Bignonia capreolata. It is native in 17 states from Illinois southward to the Gulf Coast and is cold hardy from zones 5-9. (Much of southern Idaho is in Zone 7.) Bignonia comes from the name of King Louis IV’s librarian.

This much-underused, semi-evergreen native may have more flowers per square foot when in bloom than any other plant. When I was with Mississippi State University, we had thousands of flowers cover the arbor at the experiment station.

We have a gardening generation that seems to be discovering the joy of growing vertically on arbors, trellises, towers and fences. Now they just need to discover this great vine that also offers nectar to both hummingbirds and butterflies.

The spring flower show lasts for weeks and then tapers off to sporadic blossoms. The show, however, when it is in full bloom will be long remembered by all who see. Throughout the South I have seen yellow ones and those that are orange to red. Tangerine Beauty is the most popular selection in the market along with Shalimar Red

Over the years I have had amusing audience participation from some of the older gang, who acknowledge smoking the vine when they were kids. In other words they had an appreciation for the cross vine more than just for the landscape. The stems do have a cross section in the pith. Most also testified to burning their throat, so I don’t recommend it.

To grow yours, choose a site in full sun for the most spectacular flower show. Amend tight soils with the addition of 3 to 4 inches of organic matter and till to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Select a sturdy support structure or let it climb a brick or masonry wall.

The vine climbs by tendrils that have small disks that allow it to attach itself to a wall. Plant superior nursery-grown transplants, setting out at the same depth they are growing in the container, water and apply mulch. Space your plants 10 to 15 feet apart and be aware they can climb 20 to 30 feet.

I would like to tell you there is some magic to making them look great, maybe an alfalfa tea or some mixture with Epsom salts. But the truth is, probably anyone can grow the cross vine. It is funny how native plants seem that way, isn’t it? Prune to maintain shape and confinement. Do major removing or thinning of vines after spring bloom.

When they bloom, the orange-flowered selections like Tangerine Beauty scream to be partnered with blue flowers. Usually pansies are at peak, and blue selections would look great massed at the base of the vine. Snapdragon relatives like Bluebird or Blueberry Sachet nemesia would also look stunning. But the real thrill may come from a large patch of blue irises growing in front, creating an unmatchable landscape painting

Once you start “growing up,” your garden will really come alive, and the native cross vine is one of the best.