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Social Climbers : In Southern California Most Vining Plants Grow to Be Unruly, but Subtropical Vines Are Always Welcome Guests

August 16, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

MOST VINES ARE house gobblers, tree consumers, fence wreckers. Turn your back on them and they are out of control. They have been known to completely cover windows, to grow into an attic, to rip off shingles. They can even smother a tree. Undoing their damage is hard and heavy work, extricating them from their victims is a painfully slow process--like untying a thousand knots in a child's shoelaces.

Boston ivy, for instance, will grow in the shade and clings to anything with its little sucker-like pads. Although it makes a handsome green background for the garden, keeping it off window screens is a monotonous task. Wisteria starts out sweetly enough but in time becomes a monstrous and extremely heavy vine. A creeping fig looks so small and innocent in its nursery container, but at maturity its leaves triple in size and it has the grasp of a green giant.

But not all vines behave so malevolently. Some grow to manageable sizes, the very models of restraint, and their discovery by gardeners is overdue. This is especially true in Southern California, where we can manage to grow dozens of well-mannered subtropical vines that flower exuberantly. And they become more useful each year, because they can thrive in those increasingly common spaces that are too narrow for anything else--the sliver-shaped planting strips around new or remodeled homes, and in condominium and apartment courtyards.

Currently at the top of my list is the demure Stephanotis floribunda , also known as Madagascar jasmine. This subtropical vine reputedly grows only in a frost-free band along the coast, but it thrives in my garden, which is far from the beach. It can grow in sun or complete shade, as I have discovered. The stephanotis had been situated in the dark under an aluminum roof, and after the shelter was removed, it found itself in full sun against a south-facing wall. It adjusted without so much as a yellowed leaf. In the shade it had bloomed once or twice, and the flowers were a delight, but in the sun it completely covered itself with its white, waxy, sweetly fragrant flowers, which are often used in bridal arrangements.

Although stephanotis attains a height of a restrained 8 to 10 feet, it grows very slowly. And like most vines, it attaches by twining, which means that it requires some kind of support. The tendrils can be woven into, or tied to, the lattice of ready-made, 4x8-foot redwood-trellis panels that have been secured with screws to eight-foot-long redwood 2x2s--two at either side and one in the middle. On a wood wall, the 2x2s can be secured with screws; on stucco, the screws must be driven into plastic anchors that are inserted into holes drilled with a masonry bit. The panels can also be attached to 10-foot, 4x4 posts so that they are free-standing. That would make painting the wall behind the panels a lot easier, although the former method allows you to unscrew the whole affair and tilt it outward. These panels will certainly last 10 years.

My next favorite subtropical vine has the not-too-glamorous name of potato vine (it does not look anything like a potato, but it is a Solanum ). I prefer to call it Solanum jasminoides , because the reference to jasmine is more romantic, if not apt. This vine is a little scraggly in appearance, and its foliage is sparse. One of these grows on two 4x8-foot lattice panels at the front of my house. It grew very quickly to cover the panels, and not much at all since, but it is always in bloom with its graceful white bells. There is another viny solanum that is only now becoming available at nurseries, S. wendlandii . It is on the small side but with very large nightshade-like flowers of royal purple.

Mandevillea 'Alice du Pont' is a subtropical vine that will grow just large enough to cover an eight-foot section of chain-link fence. It grows almost as slowly as the stephanotis, but it blooms much more. The pure pink flowers begin in late spring and keep coming all summer and into fall, almost completely hiding the foliage. Mandevillea 'Alice du Pont' needs sun but apparently likes its roots in the shade, which also is said to be true of the stephanotis.

In Mediterranean gardens, vines are often trained up into olives and other open trees. Only certain vines will do. They must be spare themselves and not too lush, with a graceful airiness that reminds one of trimmings on a Christmas tree. That is done with much success in the garden of plantswoman Hortense Miller in Laguna Beach, although some of her vines have tended to smother their supporting trees or shrubs. But not the snail vine ( Vigna caracalla , often misnamed Phaseolus giganteus ), which grows in several small trees there. Its foliage is almost unnoticeable, but there hanging from the branches are the most amazing flowers. The snail vine can grow to 15 feet, but it's 15 feet of thin, twining stems.

In general, subtropical vines are not easy to obtain; they can be grown only in Southern California's mild coastal climate and are difficult to keep in a nursery container, which makes them unpopular items with nurserymen. But the stephanotis, solanum and mandevillea are fairly common, which is not too surprising since all of them can grow easily and even flower profusely in containers (balcony gardeners, take note). Finding the others requires perseverance and some adventuresome shopping.

Learning about these vines is just as difficult, but "Color for the Landscape" (written many years ago to promote the planting of colorful gardens in Southern California and edited by UCLA's Mildred Mathias) has an entire chapter on subtropical vines that illustrates the possibilities. The book is almost as difficult to locate (try a library) as the vines pictured inside.

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