Flowering Vine Types and How to Use Them

The pros and cons of common climbers, ground covers

Wisteria (image) is very popular. The vines are widely used in North America.
David Beaulieu

It is high time to praise the virtue of the best flowering vines and other attractive climbers and creepers, while also admitting the drawbacks of some of the more questionable selections from the vine world. One can cite trumpet vine (also called "trumpet creeper") as an example of the latter: While it certainly does sound a clarion call to any landscaper interested in plants for attracting hummingbirds, it can spread very aggressively, so beware!

Aesthetic and Utilitarian Purposes

Flowering vines are employed in landscape design with both aesthetic and utilitarian purposes in mind. Their versatility is truly impressive, yet these Rodney Dangerfields of the landscaping world get no respect.

Jack the Giant-Killer had the specimen plant to outshine all specimen plants growing on his property, only to hack down the famous beanstalk at the end of the fairy tale. "Clinging vine" has a bad connotation, deriving from the observation that a tree soars to the heights on its own merits, while a vine, even if it climbs to the very crown of the tallest tree, reaches such heights only through the tree's support (Jack's beanstalk did not need a support, but, then again, his plant was magical). People even become the victims of a ravenous vine in the musical, "Little Shop of Horrors."

There is a good reason for this lack of respect: Some of the entries included below are mentioned to draw attention to the fact that they are aggressive or invasive plants. But perhaps no other category of plants has the versatility of flowering vines. A lot of that versatility has to do with the fact that they can either stay close to the ground (that is, function as ground covers) or climb.

The Vertical Dimension

The vertical dimension is always an important consideration in landscape design. Flat expanses that afford the eye little relief from the horizontal dimension are tiresome. Vertical relief can be supplied by elements such as arbors. But an arbor is just "bones" if left standing on its own. It needs to be "clothed." And what will clothe it? Climbing plants, of course. Flowering vines not only dress up an arbor but also provide it with a living roof that will furnish welcome shade to its summer tenants.

One often builds an arbor in order to support beautiful vine plants; that is, we can categorize this as a planned use of vines for aesthetic purposes. In other cases, however, hardscape elements in need of "vine clothing" are placed on a landscape for their own sake—their primary function is not to serve as vine supports. Yet they profit from their vine apparel every bit as much as do arbors.

Chain-link fences, for instance, hardly appealing on their own, stand in need of vine plants to disguise them (unless you are using them for security, in which case it is better to leave them unobscured). As an added bonus, the union of vine and fence in such cases can form privacy screens, sheltering your backyard activities from unwelcome outside attention. In addition, some vine plants can serve a utilitarian function—as groundcovers for erosion control.

Flowering Vines, Ground Covers, Berries, Foliage

In fact, below is an abbreviated list of ten landscape design needs that can be filled by flowering vines (and other types), accompanied by examples of specific plants commonly used to fill each need (in cases where the plant in question is aggressive or invasive, as with trumpet creeper, notice is given of the fact further below, so that you may resist the temptation to plant it):

  1. For a ground cover—Periwinkle or "creeping myrtle" (Vinca minor)
  2. For fall crafts—American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)
  3. For hanging baskets—Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)
  4. For disguising unattractive fencesJapanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), silver lace vine, or morning glories (Ipomoea tricolor)
  5. For edible landscaping—Grapevines (Vitis spp.)
  6. For fall color—Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
  7. For adorning mailboxes and lampposts—Jackman's clematis 
  8. For rambling over stone wallsSweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) or sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), or climbing hydrangea (in lieu of trumpet vine)
  9. For erosion control—Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)
  10. For "roofing" a shade-giving arborWisteria, Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla)

Below we will look at some special considerations for using these plants, beginning with wisteria and trumpet vines. The idea is to help you sort out the best flowering vines from some of the questionable choices.

Best Flowering Vines

It is time now to provide details about particular types of climbing plants. Follow the links furnished below to access growing tips for the examples discussed.

As already stated, wisteria vines make excellent "roofing" for garden arbors. Make sure your structure is solid because these plants become quite heavy as they mature. But with their fantastic drooping racemes, they are unquestionably best displayed when grown above ground level, so it behooves you to provide support for them.

You can be sure that the flowering of any successful wisteria vine has been the subject of many a double take from passersby. A stunning bloomer, in spring this climbing plant yields large, drooping clusters of fragrant bluish-purple or white flowers. Wisteria vines can be grown in zones 3-9.

But a distinction needs to be made between Chinese wisteria vines (Wisteria sinensis) and Japanese wisteria vines (Wisteria floribunda), on the one hand, and American wisteria vines (Wisteria frutescens) on the other. These are three distinct climbing plants, despite the fact that they belong to the same genus.

One problem with the Chinese and Japanese wisteria vines is waiting for their success—that is, flowering. Waiting for them to finally flower can be just too long a wait for some folks, although some growers report success in speeding up their blooming through rigorous pruning (for more information, see the full article on wisteria vines.

Another problem with Japanese and Chinese wisteria vines is the potential for invasiveness. You had better be a hands-on gardener if you want to grow Chinese wisteria vines or Japanese wisteria vines. Be ruthless about keeping their growth checked through pruning.

One solution to the long wait for flowering, if you can afford it, is to buy an older (and consequently more expensive) specimen from your nursery. If you shop for wisteria vines in spring at nurseries, you can scout for plants already in bloom.

Although wisteria vine tolerates shade, for best blooming grow it in a sunny area.

But a better solution (in North America) is to buy American wisteria. Not only is the latter less invasive, but it also blooms faster, too. The exotic wisteria vines are more frost-sensitive, as well. American wisteria vines flower in lavender or mauve, and they will sometimes bloom again in September.

The Invasive, the Aggressive, and the Well-Behaved

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is an aggressive spreader. It produces reddish orange or salmon flowers throughout most of the summer months. Zones 4-9. Provide it with an arbor, trellis or fence on which to grow. This vigorous grower does need to be contained if you do not want it spreading all over the place. Faithfully pull up any new shoots that pop up from the root system, and remove the seeds before they fall upon the earth. Indeed, in the southeastern U.S. trumpet vine is sometimes considered a weed. Birdwatchers will love the fact that trumpet vines draw hummingbirds, but those who seek a lower-maintenance vine will want to substitute with something like sweet pea.

Wintercreeper is winter-hardy to zone 4. This broadleaf evergreen is grown for its foliage, not its flower. There are numerous cultivars of wintercreeper. Some are used as ground covers for erosion control, while others are allowed to grow up walls (for instance, to hide an unattractive shed wall). Unfortunately, its "effectiveness" as a ground cover has much to do with its invasive quality.

Jackman's clematis is well-behaved and highly sought after for its large red, white, pink, purple, or lavender flowers. Zones: 3-8. A trick to success with clematis is growing the plant in sunlight but keeping its roots cool. This may be achieved by mulching or planting low plants over the clematis' root zone to provide ground shade. Also be careful when pruning clematis. Some types flower on the previous season's wood, others on new growth. Make sure you know what type of clematis that you have before pruning it.

China fleece, or silver lace vine (Polygonum aubertii) is related to Polygonum cuspidatum, commonly known as Japanese knotweed. The fact that silver lace vine can grow and produce its white blooms in shade makes planting it a temptation for gardeners not blessed with a sunny locale.

But resist the temptation to grow silver lace vine; it may turn out to be an invasive species. No close relative of Japanese knotweed is welcome on the landscape. For a full story on one gardener's battles with the invasive species, Japanese knotweed, please consult this article on Japanese Knotweed. A much better choice for a vine that flowers in shade are climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris).

Virginia creepers (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) do bloom, but they are valued mainly as plants for great fall color. Their green leaves morph to brilliant colors in fall, ranging from red to burgundy. In the Eastern U.S., this specimen is a native, making it easy to grow there. In fact, in the southern part of its range, it is considered a weed. While this flowering vine plant is not, technically, an invasive in North America (it is native there, and only alien plants are rightly classified as invasive), it is definitely aggressive.

There is another caveat to mention about Virginia creepers. If you wish to grow Virginia creeper up the walls of any buildings, make sure first that you desire it as a permanent fixture. Once Virginia creeper gets a toehold, it is difficult to remove it from its supporting structure. You could do damage to a wall in your attempts to rid it of entrenched Virginia creeper. It is better to let Virginia creeper creep on the dirt as a ground cover unless you are sure that you want it as permanent "siding" on your wall.

If edible landscaping is your passion, incorporate grapevines into your landscape. Their flowers are not impressive, but they do yield grapes. Grapevine could easily be substituted for wisteria as your choice on an arbor. And just because the fruit will be edible, don't dismiss grapevine as an ornamental. Grapevines lend themselves admirably to fall foliage displays.

The silky blue of the common morning glory is a must for any traditional landscaper, but lavender, deep purple, and antique rose morning glories are available as well. Morning glory is another hummingbird and butterfly magnet and is treated as an annual in all but the warmest of climates. Some of these flowering vine plants can be invasive species in certain regions of the United States. Japanese honeysuckle is also invasive in some parts of North America.

"Blackie" ornamental sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Blackie') is another specimen grown for its foliage, not its flower. Like its relative, morning glory, this specimen will be an annual in the northerly zones of North America, so it will be well-behaved there. Besides serving as an attractive component of hanging baskets, sweet potato vine is often used in window boxes.

Bittersweet vine is dioecious and presents North American landscapers with a decision similar to that discussed above with wisteria. That is, the Oriental variety of bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) is much more prevalent than the native variety (Celastrus scandens), but it is also terribly invasive. Although it does flower, this flowering vine plant is grown for its berries and foliage, not its flower. In fall its foliage is yellow, and orange berries burst out of golden husks—a sight rivaled by no other vine. It is easy to understand why this vine is commonly gathered for fall crafts—it makes for a knockout autumn door wreath. You can read the full story, Bittersweet Vines, to learn all about this plant. If you live in North America, do make it a point to grow the native, "American bittersweet." 

Common periwinkle vinca vines (Vinca minor) are flowering vine plants that bear pretty blue blooms in spring, but they are valued equally for their foliage. This species is a creeper and has been a traditional favorite among the ground covers, often going by the alias, "creeping myrtle." Periwinkle vine will thrive where turf grass fears to tread: namely, in the shade of large trees. As is the case with many "thriving" species, this one is invasive.