Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today


NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.


NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.


New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.


Plant Profiles

Climbing Milkvine



Well, well:  What's this little pinwheel?  A dark burgundy flower on a demure twining vine.  Say "hello" to one of America's more obscure  natives:  A climbing milkweed.  Matelea obliqua is a milkweed cousin, but instead of being a tall clumping perennial that basks in the hottest roadside sun, it's a vine that prefers the semi-shade of woodland glades.


Unless you've been given a head's-up to take a closer look, you could miss the tiny flowers altogether.  Help call attention to them the way I've done here:  Let climbing milkvine ramble through a larger host plant whose foliage provides a contrasting backdrop.  I chose gold-leaved winterhazel, Corylopsis spicata 'Aurea'.




Even in a head-on view, the Corylopsis foliage enhances the flowers. 




When the gold Corylopsis leaves are backlit by low sun, the mysteriously dark Matelea flowers are a macabre thrill.




Once the "high-performing" host shrub that is the scaffold for Matelea has caught your attention, you can slow down and zoom in for a closer look at the strange and wonderful Matelea flowers themselves.  The twisting petals surround a fastidiously-circled central array of stamens and pistils.  Is this is a flower, or a tiny but rapacious starfish?




The leaves of Matelea obliqua are large and medium-green.  They also show up well against the much brighter foliage of the Corylopsis




Corylopsis and Matelea:  The shrub puts on a "macro-show" that draws your attention to the "micro-show" of the vine.  It's a high-Summer synergy that's as entertaining as it is eccentric. 




Here's how spectacular this surprising native vine's foliage can be in the Fall.


Here's how to grow Matelea obliqua:

Latin name

Matelea obliqua.  Synonyms: Gonolobus obliquus, Vincetoxicum obliquum.

Common name

Climbing milkvine


Apocynaceae, the dogbane family.  Dogbane is a family of flowering hardy perennials with a passing resemblance to common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca.  They are native everywhere throughout the Northern Hemisphere except Europe.  "Apo" is Greek for "away;" "cyno" is Greek for dog; dogbane species are, typically, poisonous.  Considering that they usually have unpleasantly sticky white sap, it's hard to imagine any creature taking more than a single nibble.

What kind of plant is it

Perennial twining vine.


Zones 6 to 9.


Matelea is herbaceous: Its stems die to the ground in the Fall, and fresh ones grow from the roots in the Spring.  They twine on anything that's handy, be it a structure or a neighboring plant. 

Rate of growth


Size in ten years

Stems twine just four or five feet for several years; stems from older colonies may explore to six to ten feet.


Loose.  Although the leaves are comparatively large, they occur in widely-spaced pairs along the stems. 

Grown for

its habit:  A climbing milkweed?  Who knew?  Slender twining stems sprout directly from the roots each Spring.  See "How to handle it" for options for plants through which Matelea can climb to maximize its effect.


its flowers: Starry burgundy-petaled flowers, perhaps an inch across, usually in loose clusters.  (Mine are born singly because my colony is young, and is sited in fairy full shade.)  The flowers are charming but also subtle; see "Plant partners" for companion plantings to help enhance their display.  They mature to typical prickly milkweed pods, which open to release typically-silky seeds.


its foliage: the large heart-shaped foliage will remind you of those of dutchman's pipe, Aristolochia macrophylla, but this species' growth is reticent, not rampant, which allows its  leaves to show up as individuals in a cast of dozens, not thousands. In Fall, the coloring changes from mid-green to a (sometimes) spectacular bright gold overlaid with a green netting of the veins. It is much superior to that of Aristolochia.

Flowering season

My young colony has just begun its maiden season of flowering, with the first blossoms in evidence in late July.  Established colonies are reported to be in flower as early as April, and as late as October. 

Color combinations

The dark green leaves and burgundy flowers harmonize with almost any color, be it pink or orange, blue or yellow, white or ebony-black.

Partner plants

Much of the pleasure of Matelea is in the discovery; its charms are so restrained that, without careful siting and context, you'd miss it entirely.  Partner plants need consideration both for their structural suitability as a scaffold through which Matelea can twine, as well as for how well their coloristic and textural gifts can cause you to stop, look more closely, and only then realize that there's also a peculiar What-is-it? scrambling through your field of vision.


"Scaffoldibility" first:  Choose plants with loose and multi-stemmed growth, so that the tips of the twining Matelea stems receive enough light for a sufficient welcome, let alone a leg up.  Fortunately, most woody plants grow less densely in part shade, anyway.  My colony of Matelea seems very content to explore the lower reaches of gold-leaved winterhazel.  The habit of Corylopsis spicata 'Aurea' is multi-stemmed, and the leaves on its arching branches are widely-spaced.  Both traits provide plenty of opportunity for Matelea stems to enter the bush's canopy, and then to enjoy exploring further.  


A mounding Acer palmatum would be a terrific scaffold for the same reasons.  Many branches will be low enough for emerging Matelea stems to find them.  And the ferny foliage canopy lets light into the heart of the tree, providing the benignly semi-shady habitat that encourages those stems to keep on growing.  I've talked myself into it:  I'll try establishing a second colony of Matelea near my Acer palmatum 'Red Pygmy'


Next, color and texture—the "presentational" assistance that the scaffold plant can provide for the Matelea.  The bright leaves of the Corylopsis are excellent contrast for the green foliage as well as the burgundy flowers of Matelea.  They also block less light than the darker-green leaves of the straight species of Corylopsis, which is a kindness for the growth of the Matelea, which is always, to some degree, growing in the interior of the scaffolding host.  Best of all, the dark-burgundy Matelea flowers receive the maximum showcasing when backed by the glowing Corylopsis leaves.


Although the burgundy Matelea flowers wouldn't show up as well against the burgundy foliage of 'Red Pygmy', the vine's large, green, smooth-edged leaves would be in significant contrast with the fluffy feathery burgundy leaves of the maple.  As long as the scaffolding host is able to call sufficient attention to either the foliage or the flowers of Matelea, the pairing will be a success.  The gold Corylopsis leaves are highlighting—or, rather, backlighting—the burgundy Matelea flowers, whereas the purple foliage of the maple is backdropping the green Matelea foliage.     


Few broadleaved evergreens would make satisfactory partners.  Their thick foliage casts a denser shade onto the interior of the plant than does the thinner leaves of deciduous scaffolders.  Worse (from the perspective of a Matelea, that is) their growth is often too dense, even in shade, to provide a real welcome to twining stems.  To reach the host's woody stems to twine any farther, they'd have little choice but to try to grow deeper into the host's ever-darker foliage canopy.  Not promising.


Some gold-foliaged conifers have real potential as scaffolders.  The growth of the gold-needled plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Korean Gold', is dense, but with many vertical stems, like a pipe-organ, not a solid mound, such as the growth of mounding yews, box, holly, azaleas or rhodies.  If Matelea were planted at the east side of 'Korean Gold', it could explore vertically as well as laterally through the columns of plum yew growth, reaching for as much sun as it wanted.  The vine's foliage would show up well against the gold bottle-brushes of the plum-yew stems. 


Similarly, the bright gold foliage of Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fernspray Gold' is a strong contrast in both texture and color.  And its looser habit and horizontal limbs, which are usually born to the ground, combine to provide a convenient many-leveled welcome into higher and higher realms of gentle dappled shade.


Would it be possible for Matelea to climb into a host that was, itself, herbaceous?  The host would need to grow faster than Matelea, and yet be sturdy enough to support it.  Perhaps royal fern, Osmunda regalis, whose growth is so fast and large that a happy colony has the presence of shrubbery? 


Or, what about a woody host that was coppiced annually?  Most of those put out new growth that lengthens with startling speed, and would be sufficiently large in plenty of time for the Matelea stems.  If Matelea were planted on the east side of a Buddleia, the fast-growing stems of the shrub would themselves provide the necessary shade.  The warm-weather foliage of B. davidii 'Evil Ways' is of similar coloring to that of Corylopsis spicata 'Aurea' and, even better, in a nicely-contrasting narrow and pointy shape.

Where to use it in your garden

Matelea needs careful siting if it's not to be overlooked.  In particular, the flowers demand close-range appreciation.  Locate the vine and its host where the vine will be right alongside paving, terrace, or lawn.  If your host is one of the gold-leaved conifers, which have a presence year-round, then site the pair where you see them every day, such as by paving or walkway leading to the main door to your house.  Because Corylopsis spicata 'Aurea' is engaging in or out of leaf, it and its Matelea partner could also be sited by that same door.


Part shade in almost any soil with decent drainage.  It is not deterred by high pH, and thrives in soil pockets amid limestone rock.  Matelea occurs naturally in open woodland, and is especially at home in areas prone to fires, which would burn away competition and also, temporarily, expose the colonies to more sun.

How to handle it: The Basics

In Zone 6, plant in Spring; in Zones 7 through 9, plant in Spring or Fall.


Colonies establish slowly, with a similar timing to that of clematis:  First year, sleep.  Second year, creep.  Third year, leap.  Put in a durable marker so you can be confident of the young colony's location; in my modest experience, new stems are slow to emerge in the Spring.  (This year, I didn't become aware of mine until July, when I discovered it, twining in full confidence, amid nearby branches of Corylopsis spicata 'Aurea'.)


Although Matelea will scramble across open ground, in its heart it is really hoping to twine.  Given its modest altitudinal aspirations—four feet, maybe five—you'd be providing a curious and twee little trellis if you wanted the vine to climb on a structure.  Better to let Matelea explore a nearby shrub, or even a suitably big-boned and sturdy perennial.  See "Plant partners" for possibilities.  


Clip dead stems off at ground level after they've been killed by frost.   Untangle them gently from their supporting structure, be it a trellis or a host shrub. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

In the event that Matelea obliqua self-seeds with too much abandon, clip off the seedpods before they open.  Or, let the pods ripen and, just as they threaten to split open, harvest and give to friends, so they can establish this eccentric beauty in their own gardens. 


With typical milkweed prowess, Matelea is a self-reliant seeder.  Let the pod ripen fully and, on a windless day, clip it from the mother colony and open it carefully atop a patch of well-dug open ground adjacent to a shrub through which the young plants might twine, and which would also provide the dappled shade that Matelea seems to appreciate.  Sprinkle with just a bit of soil, so that the seeds are held in place more from the soil's weighing down the seeds' floss than to due to any covering of the actual seeds themselves.  Be sure to mark the location so you can keep track of germination. 

Any (other) quirks or special cases?

Matelea is nothing but quirks—see every entry in this table!




There are about 200 species in the milkvine's family, but only a few are hardy in climates that are colder than subtropical.  M. alabamensis is endangered in its native range of Alabama through northern Florida.  M. carolinensis is native to the entire southeast United States.  M. decipiens, with the intriguing name of "oldfield" milkvine, is a southeast US native as well.  All have similar habits and charms—or, depending on your interest in obscurities, limitations.  It's unlikely that any garden needs more than one Matelea.




By seed and by division.

Native habitat

Matelea obliqua is native to the eastern United States, from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and Illinois to Mississippi.     

FacebookTwitterRSS Feed

Stay in touch!


Sign up for twice-monthly eNews, plus notification of new posts:


* indicates required