The Value of Vines

By Arvind Kumar

When we think of vines in the garden, most of us think of their ornamental value (are the flowers attractive or fragrant?) or perhaps their functional value (as a privacy screen, shading a porch, or cooling a wall). We rarely think of their habitat value – what good do they do to the birds, bees, and other critters in the yard? As the vines in my garden mature, they reveal more and more of their potential in this regard.

[Vines] like to reach for the sun, but want their feet to be cool

Vine This Roger’s Red grapevine has hosted nesting mockingbirds Photo: Arvind Kumar

For many years now, I have enjoyed the lovely spring blooms of the chaparral clematis (Clematis lasiantha) and more recently the showy seedheads of its female plant. This spring, for the first time, bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) have chosen to build their sock-like nest in the clematis! Bushtits usually travel in flocks of 10 or more, passing through the garden from bush to bush, picking off tiny insects. Well before you see them, you hear an exploratory tweet here and a chirp there, and pretty soon an entire chorus follows. And before you know it, the flock has moved on to another garden, another bush. What a delight it is to see them return to the garden over and over.

Vine Bushtit feeding on blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea) Photo: Stephen Rosenthal

Now I see a solo bushtit, landing on the live oak first, then heading cautiously to the nest, made from bits of moss and lichen, and hanging from an inner branch of the vine. Blink, and the bird has disappeared through the small opening at the top of the nest.

A common sight along Bay Area trails, chaparral clematis is most visible in the spring sun with its cream blossoms adorning other shrubs and trees. By July, the foliage has turned dry and brown, but female plants continue to shine with their cotton puff seed heads that are decorative and long-lasting. Summer watering keeps the leaves green longer.

Then there is the Roger’s Red grape (Vitis californica X vinifera) that climbs up the pergola and spreads out on top, providing summer shade to the swing below. The berries make excellent juice, and what fruit remains on the vine sustains birds for the rest of the year. We prune the vine around the edges, but with each passing year, the mass of canes on top becomes thicker and more dense.

Vine Mockingbird feeding on blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea) Photo: Stephen Rosenthal

Last year, for the first time, a pair of northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) nested in the grapevine. We observed them regularly visiting the same corner of the vine, arriving with choice insect morsels in their beaks. The nest was located at the top of the pergola, 10’ above the ground, entirely hidden from view by the large grape leaves, safe and secure from predators. This year, to our delight, a pair has nested in the same location.

The native grape is a vigorous vine that loves full sun and moisture, and is naturally found near water courses. In the garden, once established, reduce water to control its vigor.

The Candy Cane morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia ‘Candy Cane’) has been in the ground now for three years. It has climbed up a post to the top of a trellis. This evergreen vine blooms eight months of the year, and hummingbirds and native bees are drawn to it for the nectar. The vine has been increasing in girth as well as length, creating a dense mass of twining stems inside the envelope of foliage and blooms. This year, we saw towhees (Pipilo crissalis) perching on the vine, but have found no nests yet.

Perhaps what the towhees were looking for was a vine of a different persuasion: poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), no garden favorite this, but with undisputed value to birds. The California towhee in particular builds its nest in poison oak, and loves to feed on its pale white berries. Is there a corner of the garden where this plant could do good without harming humans? If you plant it, also plant some mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana) nearby: knowledgeable colleagues attest to its value as an antidote to poison oak rash – rub the leaves on affected skin.

In the author’s garden, bushtits built their nest in this chaparral clematis vine, just below the Backyard Habitat sign from the National Wildlife Federation. Photo: Arvind Kumar

Legions of readers of Judith Lowry’s seminal book on environmental gardening, Gardening With a Wild Heart, have planted the California pipevine (Aristolochia californica), the only host plant of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor). The butterflies have yet to discover my 10-year-old pipevine, perhaps because my garden does not lie within the natural range of the vine, but that has not diminished my enjoyment of its unusual flowers. Normally a streamside plant, it does well in a shady part of my garden with no summer water.

Chaparral honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) has mildly fragrant pink blossoms that attract hummingbirds, and red berries that other birds feed on. Plant it in part shade and provide occasional water through the summer.

If you have the space, consider the summer-green western virgin’s bower (Clematis ligusticifolia). Give it full sun and water. Be charmed by its smaller white flowers, showy seed heads, and potential to attract nesting songbirds.

Vines look better when trained on a trellis, pergola, or screen. They like to reach for the sun, but want their feet to be cool, meaning protect their roots from hot sun. Many native shrubs and trees provide a natural trellis for them to grow on, and both coexist without smothering the other. Some vines (grape, morning glory) can also make attractive groundcovers in well-lit beds.

Arvind Kumar is a long-time member of the CNPS Santa Clara Valley Chapter who has been growing and enjoying native plant in his San Jose garden since 2001.


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