Gardening with Native Plants: Summer Vines

Clematis vine and raspberry plant.

Clematis vine. Raspberry (Rubus sp.), in the upper right corner, is sometimes confused with poison ivy. It can be distinguished by the white stem and thorns.

During July, many native species come into bloom in prairies, savannas, and wetlands. This diversity provides opportunities to learn plant families, practice identification skills, and choose plants to add to your garden. In the native plant garden, our tasks include weeding, edging, monitoring plants and pollinators, labeling, and confirming plant identification in person and from visitors’ photos.

In addition to flowering, mid-summer brings rapid growth of native vines as well as requests to identify them. Some of these, like the woody vine Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) may grow as a ground cover or up vertical surfaces like tree trunks or buildings. It is a member of the grape family but has small tendrils tipped with pads that stick to rather than curl around objects for support. The fall color of this species is a brilliant red, and it often turns color before the tree it is climbing.

Poison ivy with flower stalks growing.
Poison ivy with flower stalks growing. After blooming, white fruits will form and are often seen in fall and winter.

Another—often less desirable—native ground cover or climbing woody perennial vine is poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). This species, in the cashew family, has delicate white flowers in June and white fruits that develop later in the season. The seeds can be dispersed by birds or animals, and we find seedlings in the garden occasionally. Avoid contact with any part of this plant in any season if you are sensitive to its urushiol compounds or if you are not sure if you are sensitive.

In the buttercup family, Virgin’s bower or devil’s darning needle (Clematis virginiana) is another perennial vine that grows in sun to partial shade. It has profuse white flowers in July, male and female flowers on same plant, and weak stems that grow over other plants but don’t twine or climb.

An annual vine with star-shaped leaves and spiny but hollow fruits, wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) is an annual vine that reproduces by seed. Male and female flowers grow on the same plant. This species grows best in mesic or wet mesic soils, covering other plants and structures.

Wild honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica) is a native woody perennial that grows in partial shade or shade, in moist to dry soils, in woods and on outcrops or rocky slopes. It bears red or yellow flowers in clusters, with red fruits developing in July. On this vine, the leaves are opposite, entire, and have a waxy surface.

While some of these native vines may be too large for smaller garden spaces, they may be well suited (except for poison ivy) for your home landscaping or restoration area.

—Susan Carpenter, native plant gardener