Annual Vines: Texas Gardener

By Jan Pipher

Freelance Writer

Remember Jack’s mythical beanstalk? Here are a few of its prototypes – fast growing, flowering, Texas hardy annual vines. Annual vines are climbing plants that are usually sown in spring; bloom and seed through the warm weather and die in the fall. With all the excellent perennial vines available to the Texas gardener, why choose an annual, one might ask? For one thing, annual vines are grown from seed, which is a big money saver, and they often reseed, which is thriftier still. They grow easily and fast, so for quick camouflage or energy-saving summer shade, they are ideal.

imageAnnuals, as opposed to perennials, tend to flower more, giving more seasonal color. Annual vines also make fun growing projects for children – did you ever have a vine house or a vine-covered tee-pee as a child? And, due to the vigorous (to say the least) nature of most perennial vines, annuals are a welcome relief when it comes to removing them.

Consider, first of all, the resplendent lilac-flowered hyacinth bean, Dolichos lablab . This edible climber comes in two forms: one has green seed pods, the other, purple. Both are equally hardy, equally reliable at reseeding but the purple-podded one has the advantage of adding a little more color to the vine overall. The beans themselves are colorful and kids love collecting them and playing with them. Each seed looks like a miniature oreo cookie, black with a little splash of white on one side.

Hyacinth bean is one of the vines that has been recommended as useful for summer energy conservation. Before the days of air conditioning, vines planted across front porches, or on the sunny side of houses helped reduce the temperature in the house and they can be used in the same way today to cut down high electric outage.

imageThen, when fall comes, down come the vines, the seeds are saved for next year, and in winter the same area can be warmed by solar heat. Another “bean” vine is old-fashioned scarlet runner bean or Phaseolus multiflorus . This climber is also edible and has beautiful red flowers. Scarlet runner bean is less versatile than hyacinth bean in the energy saving sense, as it does not handle the heat as well and does better planted in spring and fall like a regular green bean crop. A good option is to use scarlet runner beans in the vegetable garden where they will add color and attract pollinating insects and birds.

In some states, morning glory is consider ed a noxious weed but here in Texas the heat keeps them in check and they behave themselves very nicely. For morning glory lovers who are not vigorous gardeners, annual morning glory, Ipomoea spp., will be more enjoyable than the perennial version, which can keep a machete-wielding man busy a long time.

Annual morning glories come in pinks, red (Scarlet O’Hara), lilac, purples, tricolors and an unforgettable true blue. Morning glory flowers open in the morning and fade in the afternoon. The bright green heart-shaped leaves tend to droop in the heat of the day if they are in full sun, but not necessarily for lack of water – morning glories are very drought tolerant once they are established.

imageThere are some other morning glory relatives that make good Texas vines. Lots of old-timers remember the scent of moon vine, Ipomoea alba , in the summer evenings of their youth. The creamy white moon vine has not become extinct since those days nor has it become less fragrant or less hardy.

People just do not seem to have the time to plant from seed anymore and, as a result, some very worthy plants have gone “out of fashion.” Seed for this great night bloomer is still available, however, through catalogues and at some retail outlets. Try planting it on a trellis with Heavenly Blue morning glories for night and day blooms.

Except for its tubular throat, the bright red star-shaped flowerof Ipomoea quamoclit or cypress vine does not have an obvious resemblance to its morning glory cousins. The diminutive bloom and the tiny linear leaves may look delicate but this annual vine makes me think of the phrase “the mouse that roared.” A friend of mine planted a whole row of cardinal creeper, as it is also called, at the base of her porch. The dog chewed off a few, the kids ran over some with their trikes, and the weed eater got all the rest except for one and that one cypress vine climbed up and covered the entire length of her por ch railing.

Cypress vine self sows reliably, making it one of those good “perennial” annuals. Firecracker vine or Ipomoea lobata is a lesser known morning glory relative, though I think the fact that it does not reseed itself as freely as the others may be the main reason. Firecracker has a small flower that looks like old-fashioned yellow and orange “corn candy” and is a good choice for a smaller area. Cypress vine, for instance, will climb 15 feet, whereas firecracker will stay below 6 feet (for me anyway), which is nice in some situations. The seed for this vine is available through seed catalogues; you can collect the seeds yourself or get them from a friend.

imageBefore planting, scarify the seeds (nick or scratch) and soak them several hours. Luffa gourds L ufa aegyptica , make a tough, heat-tolerant flowering vine for a garden fence. A Japanese visitor once told me that in Japan they call them “water cucumber” and eat them in the young tender stage, chiding me for letting them dry out into the familiar luffa bath sponge. I cannot vouch for their edibility but they are a good Texas crop, as far as hardiness goes, and have pretty yellow flowers as well. Leave the gourds on the vine until they are thoroughly dried, then peel off the outside hull, shake the seeds from the fibrous insides, saving them for next year’s crop, and you have a good kitchen or bath sponge.

Sweet peas are heavy feeders, fussy about cold and heat, and like water. Varieties include an early flowering one which will bloom in mid-winter with protection from hard freezes; a spring flowering which can be planted fall or spring but also has to be protected from freezes and mature before the heat; and summer flowering, a heat-resistant type, that needs to be planted inspring here in Texas, not summer.

One of the prettiest bouquets I have ever seen was just a glass vase spilling over with fragrant, jewel colored sweet peas in reds, corals, blues, purples, pinks and white. Soak the seeds a few hours before planting in rich garden soil and trellis as soon as the tendrils appear.

One last remark regarding these annual vines – life will be much happier after the first frost if they are not growing on a chain link fence. Removal of lengths of once beautiful, now dead, vine may be slightly easier with annuals as they tend to be smaller stemmed than perennials, but choosing an open trellis or string trellis is a good precaution. When removing stems from chain link, let them dry thoroughly and then brush them down with a steel-bristled paint scraper. TG