Crossvine — A Showstopping Native Vine
Vining or climbing plants serve a very specific purpose in the landscape. They add a vertical accent, which often provides interesting textural and dimensional aspects to what might otherwise be a flat or uninteresting garden vista. Many climbing or vining plants have fragrant blossoms and present lots of color at eye level. The sight of a climbing rose on a trellis, a wisteria vine on an arbor, or a twining clematis on a tuteur almost always elicit admiring glances from passersby.
While vines offer a lot to the landscape, the problem with some of them is that they may grow too large for the space they’re given. All too often, they require lots of maintenance to keep them sized properly. In addition, many of them must be trained onto a support of some sort. Furthermore, if they are deciduous, they may not add much interest to the garden a good part of the year. The ideal solution to these problems is to choose a long-flowering, evergreen vine that is well mannered and stays put in the space allotted to it. Not many vines fit this description, but Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) comes very close.
DESCRIPTION OF CROSSVINE
Crossvine is a heavy-flowering, woody perennial vine that stretches 30 to 50 feet high and spreads from 6 to 9 feet wide. Native to the United States, it is generally found growing wild in the southeastern part of the country and the south central states as far west as Texas. In its native habitat, it can be found in forested flood plains and uplands as well as along fencerows and limestone escarpments. Crossvine gets its name from the cross-shaped pattern on the inside (pith) of the stems.
The evergreen, or semi-evergreen, foliage is glossy and dark green in summer, darkening to maroon or purple in winter. The individual leaves are 4- to 6-inches long by 2 inches wide and are positioned opposite one another with a third leaflet that is modified into a tendril with a claw at the tip. To quote botanist Larry Mellichamp in his book Native Plants of the Southeast, “Only one vine climbs by claws on the tips of its tendrils and this is crossvine: it grabs the bark and climbs, later using roots for a tighter grasp.” (p. 200). These unique anatomical structures enable crossvine to cling to fences, walls, trees and other vertical structures without support.
The most prominent feature of crossvine is its generous spring display of fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers, which bloom on old wood. Lasting up to four weeks, the showy orange-red, yellow or orange flowers are 2 inches long and 1-1/2 inches wide and hang in clusters of two to five flowers. The flowers of the species are generally orange-red and may have a contrasting yellow interior. The blossoms have a distinctive mocha scent, according to renowned plantsman Dr. Michael A. Dirr.
SPECIES RELATED TO CROSSVINE
A member of the trumpet creeper family (Bignoniaceae), crossvine is sometimes mistaken for the trumpet vine, which is also called trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans). Trumpet vine is gorgeous but best avoided in the landscape. Although it is native to the southeast U.S. and a very rich nectar source for hummingbirds, it grows very aggressively, drops its seeds all over the place, and is generally too invasive for the landscape. Although a vigorous grower, crossvine is much better behaved than trumpet vine and is much less vigorous. Crossvine tends to hug whatever structure it is climbing versus trumpet vine, which sends shoots out in all directions.
Here are some ways to distinguish between the two:
- Habit — While crossvine suckers, its roots only creep out a short distance from the base of the plant. Trumpet vine, however, is a large, woody vine capable of sending underground runners a longer distance from the main plant.
- Foliage – Crossvine is evergreen or semi-evergreen. Trumpet vine is deciduous. Crossvine has compound leaves that are split into two parts. Trumpet vine has leaves that are opposite, pinnately compound, coarsely toothed, and composed of 7, 9, or 11 leaflets.
- Blossoms – Crossvine flowers are reddish orange, often with contrasting yellow interiors. Trumpet vine blossoms are solid yellow, yellow-orange, or red.
- Bloom Time – Crossvine blooms in the spring with repeat blooms throughout the growing season. Trumpet vine blooms in the summer and fall.
- Invasiveness – Crossvine is not considered to be invasive. Trumpet vine, on the other hand, is considered to be very invasive, although some of the newer hybrids are reported to be less of a problem.
- Supports – Crossvine climbs by tendrils which curl or wrap around supports. Trumpet vine has aerial roots with disks that adhere tightly to vertical surfaces and can be difficult to remove.
The flowers of the species appear more reddish-brown on the outside of the trumpet and orangey-yellow in the center of the blossom. While the species is fragrant, the cultivars are generally not.
- ‘Atrosanguinea’ grows much shorter than the species, topping out between 15 and 30 feet, with dark purplish-red flowers.
- ‘Tangerine Beauty’ is a very popular, older cultivar with smaller flowers that are a blend of apricot and golden rust with yellow throats.
- ‘Helen Fredel’ is considered a showstopper because of its very large (2-1/2” long) orange flowers with yellow throats.
- ‘Dragon Lady’ is more restrained in size than the species, topping out between 20 and 35 feet. It has brick red or orange flowers with a faint touch of yellow in the throat.
- ‘Jekyll’ gets its name from Jekyll Island in Georgia where it was selected. It has orange flowers and is more reliably evergreen and cold hardy than other crossvine cultivars.
- ‘Shalimar Red’ grows to about 30 or 40 feet and repeat blooms through the summer. The flowers are coral to red.
Although found in the shade in a native setting, crossvine grows best in full sun. While it certainly can tolerate partial shade, it will produce fewer flowers.
It thrives in a variety of soils and generally prefers moist, well-drained soil that is near neutral pH (6.8 to 7.2). It can tolerate standing water or flooding for brief periods of time. After it is established, it is drought tolerant. It is hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9.
Unless you really do want a 30- to 50-foot long vine and have plenty of space for it in your landscape, crossvine should be pruned to keep it in check. To shape the vine, prune it after it finishes flowering in the spring. If you wish to increase the development of more flower shoots, train the stems so that they don’t crowd one another. If you don’t want the vine to spread, remove the root suckers.
Crossvine has no serious insect or disease problems.
Crossvine may be grown from seed or from stem cuttings. To grow from seed, collect the seed pods in late summer or early fall after they have turned light brown and begun to dry. The seeds will remain viable for up to a year if stored in sealed, refrigerated containers. They don’t require any pretreatment in order to get them to germinate.
To propagate crossvine from softwood stem cuttings, cut off a healthy, 6- to 8-inch long growing stem (current season’s growth) in spring or early summer. Leave several leaves on the tip of the stem but remove the leaves from the bottom two inches of the stem. Treat the cut end of the stem with rooting hormone to encourage root development. Insert the cut end about 2 inches deep into a moist growing medium. Mist the cutting frequently or slip a plastic bag over the potted cutting to keep it from drying out before it can develop roots. The cutting should take root within six to eight weeks.
USES FOR CROSSVINE IN THE LANDSCAPE
Vines, while quite versatile, are often considered as an afterthought in the landscape. That is unfortunate, because the foliage of evergreen vines such as crossvine can be used to reduce a homeowner’s energy costs. When used on an outside wall of a house or other building, it can help insulate it from summer heat or winter cold. In addition, crossvine can be used as:
- A vertical feature to cover or soften the appearance of fences, large trellises, walls, arbors, or other hardscape features.
- A living wall to provide privacy.
- An alternative to a tree or shrub in a space that is too narrow to plant anything else.
- A transition point as you move from one area of the landscape to another.
- A ground cover to stabilize a slope. It will scramble across the ground if no vertical structure is handy for it to cling to.
- A screen to hide an unsightly view or feature.
- An espaliered, open, criss-crossing diamond pattern against a large blank wall.
- A nectar source for hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees.
BENEFITS AND DRAWBACKS OF CROSSVINE
As with many other vines, there are pros and cons to growing crossvine.
- Crossvine is a fast, vigorous grower that can rapidly cover a vertical surface. This is an asset if you want to cover a large space as quickly as possible. In this age of instant gratification, fast growth is viewed as a positive attribute.
- One of the most floriferous of the vining plants, it is practically smothered in large clusters of colorful blossoms.
- Although it is related to and sometimes mistaken for trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), that species can be invasive whereas crossvine is not.
- This native plant is an excellent early spring nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies.
- Crossvine increases in width by suckering, which may need to be controlled. It all depends on the amount of space you wish to allocate to this vine.
- Give this vine PLENTY of space to climb. Otherwise, you’ll spend your time whacking away at it to keep it within bounds.
- Crossvine may be susceptible to deer browsing, but sources vary widely on the subject. Whether or not this plant is actually deer resistant may depend on the location of the plant, the particular browsing habits of your local deer population, and their hunger factor.
While not a vine for the faint of heart or the gardener with a limited amount of space, crossvine is a congenial giant that can provide a generous display of color in the right setting. To see an example of crossvine in Charlottesville, check out the Culbreth Road Parking Garage near the University of Virginia’s Drama Building, where it freely scrambles up trellises affixed to the garage walls and commands the attention of passersby.
Flora of Virginia (Weakley, Alan S., Ludwig, J. Christopher, and Townsend, John F., 2012)
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, 6th Edition (Dirr, Michael A., 2009)
Native Plants of the Southeast (Mellichamp, Larry, 2014).
The New York/Mid-Atlantic Gardener’s Book of Lists (Appleton, Bonny and Chaplin, Lois, 2001).
“Ten Native Vines to Attract Butterflies,” Wildlife Habitat Council Blog, www.wildlifehc.org
United States Department of Agriculture Plants Database Website, USDA Plants Database
“Wildlife, Pollinators and the Products of Pollination,” North American Pollinator Protection Campaign Fact Sheet www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators