By Terry W. Johnson
Each spring, a parade of flowering plants marches across the Georgia countryside. As I write this column, when I pause and look out across my yard, I am regaled with the beauty of the blossoms adorning Chickasaw plums, redbuds, yellow Jessamine, daffodils, jonquils, forsythias and pear trees. Around this neck of the woods, they are always at the head of Mother Nature’s spring parade of flowers.
A quick glance at the crossvines blanketing a fence along one edge of my yard reveals that this native woody vine is not yet blooming. However, I am comforted to know that in a few weeks and as the parade moves along, the crossvine will herald spring’s arrival with its dusty red and yellow trumpet-shaped blossoms. Crossvine has long been a personal favorite as it annually produces attractive foliage and provides wildlife with food as well as nesting and escape cover.
Native Americans appreciated the plant for its reputed medicinal value. They used the bark, leaves and roots to treat ailments including diphtheria, rheumatism, edema and headaches.
The crossvine gets its name from the cross-shaped pith that can be seen when its squarish stem is cut in two. The vine grows throughout the state; however, it is more abundant in middle and south Georgia.
The crossvine is fast growing and can reach a length of 50 feet or more. For this reason, the vine’s flowers sometimes go unappreciated as they festoon the tree canopy far above the forest floor.
The plant’s persistent slender, dark green and pointed leaves are 4-6 inches long. In the southern portions of the state, the leaves will remain green throughout the year. However, in the northern half of the Peach State the foliage will often turn a pleasing reddish purple during cold winter weather.
If you think that the plant’s greenery is attractive, wait until you see its blossoms – they are truly show-stoppers! Each spicy-scented, fragrant flower is shaped like trumpet or bell and roughly 2 inches long and 1½ inches wide. The outside of the bloom is orange-red while the throat is yellow. These gorgeous flowers are borne in clusters of two to five.
Healthy crossvines produce cascades of flowers. In fact, some horticulturalists will tell you that the crossvine bears more flowers per foot than any other plant. This makes it a favorite among homeowners when used on a trellis, fence arbor, or stone wall in a backyard setting. Crossvines can also be used as a ground cover.
One of the vine’s most important virtues is that it is an early bloomer. In the Georgia Piedmont, the crossvine blooms for three to four weeks beginning in April. The plant will begin blooming earlier in south Georgia. The blooming period coincides with the return of the ruby-throated hummingbird. It should come as no surprise that these long-distance migrants flock to crossvines, feeding on the abundant nectar during a time when there are few excellent sources of nectar available for what is arguably Georgia’s favorite bird.
Hummingbirds share the sugar-rich nectar with a bevy of other nectar-feeders such as butterflies and moths. Additionally, because the vine is a host plant for the yellowish to chocolate-colored rustic sphinx moth, look carefully and you might see the large predominantly green caterpillar of this distinctive moth feeding among a crossvine’s dark foliage.
Surprisingly, the vine’s winged seeds are not considered important to wildlife. White-tailed deer, on the other hand, will browse on the foliage and vines. The crossvine also is a preferred food of swamp rabbits.
You may already have crossvine growing along a fence line or in an undeveloped corner of your property. The vine can be found from bottomlands to upland mixed forests and fencerows bordering fields. As such, these places can be sources of transplants. However, it goes without saying, if you don’t have crossvines growing on your property, you should always obtain the permission of landowners before you remove plants from their property.
Crossvines will live in partial shade and full sun. The plant will grow in moist as well as dry soil conditions. Once it becomes established, this native plant is drought tolerant. However, flower production is greatest when planted in acidic, well-drained soils in full sun.
The plant can be propagated from seed or cuttings. Although the vines can be rooted at any time of the year, cuttings seem to root best in June or July. When setting out plants, place them 10 to 15 feet apart.
While it is not necessary to fertilize crossvine, growth and flower production can be enhanced by applying a 5-10-5 fertilizer in late winter followed by an application of a slow release 6-6 fertilizer in July or August.
Once they take root, the vines require little care. Since pests and diseases rarely bother the plant, spraying is usually unnecessary. About the only care required is pruning to maintain the shape of the planting and enhance blooming. Prune after the vines stop blooming.
In addition to our native crossvine, a number of cultivars are available at nurseries. They range from Jekyll (developed from wild plants found growing on Jekyll Island) to tangerine, a variety noted for the abundance of blooms that festoon the vine each spring. If you do decide to use a cultivar, select a variety known to do well in your area of the state.
If you have never incorporated native woody vines into your landscape design, the crossvine is a great plant to start with. It is easy to maintain, attractive and a valuable wildlife plant. In addition, it is a great conversation piece. Once your neighbors take a look at the cascade of large, orange and yellow crossvine flowers on display in your yard, they will want to know what it is the name of that plant and where can they find one.
Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org)