A Gardening Journal

Whte-flowered Chocolate Vine

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Chocolate vine's foliage is thick and leathery; the vine is evergreen in a milder climate.  Even here in New England, it often remains in leaf through Christmas.  I have a pair of the white-flowered form, 'Shiro Bano', that I grow up poles in the Red Garden.  Akebia flower in Spring, when there's still not much red happening in the Red Garden.  Right now, an espaliered quince and some oriental poppies are about it.

 

What's far more enduring than its Spring flowers is the Akebia foliage.  Here it is, December, and the pair of Akebia columns are as green as they were in August.  I've just clipped the vines and tied them tight to their eight-foot poles with (yes) white clothesline.  But an eight-foot pole is something an Akebia could climb before lunch.  I'm leaving a lot of Akebia-altitude potential on the table.

 

Even so, the poles are tall enough so that the pair have a certain presence when everything else in the gardens that's not truly evergreen has already given up on its Fall foliage.

 

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Perhaps there's some more fun to be had with these Akebia poles.  The easiest would be to tie on an extension.  On the tall stepladder, I can reach up to, oh, fourteen feet.  Whatever the choice, I'll need to implement it before late May, when the poles are surrounded by freshly-planted dahlias.

 

 

Here's how to grow this white-flowered form of a bullet-proof vine:


Latin Name

Akebia quinata 'Shiro Bano'

Common Name

White-flowered Chocolate Vine

Family

Lardizabalaceae, the Akebia family.

What kind of plant is it?

Twining woody vine.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 8.

Habit

Multi-stemmed and opportunitistic, Akebia can grow as a groundcover, a stump or rock-pile obscurer, or a twining climbing up a trellis or guide-wires.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

To forty feet if unrestrained as well as given enough enticing quarry to twine up, across, through, and atop.

Texture

Dense.  Growth is eager and profuse.

Grown for

its foliage:  The palmate leaves have five smooth-edged leaflets, hence the other common name, five-leaf akebia.  Akebia is, by far, the hardiest genus in the Lardizabalaceae family, so unless you're gardening in Zone 7 and up, it's your unique chance to enjoy this foliage type.


its flowers: Small racemes of small flowers that are white instead of the dusty pink of the straight species.  They're often largely hidden by the foliage.  The common name "chocolate" vine refers to the fragrance, which, to some, really is chocolatey.  I'm chagrined to admit I haven't put my nose into the flowers before, so I can't verify it.  This Spring, I promise.

 

its fruit: Typical for the Lardizabalaceae family, the fruits are sausage-shaped and a couple of inches long.  Even though 'Shiro Bano' flowers are white, the fruit is the same dark purple as of the straight species, A. quinata, whose flowers are dusty pink.

 

its vigor: Akebia will cover just about anything, from fences or old fences and stumps, to, literally, the ground.  I myself can't imagine unleashing Akebia on the ground, though:  Wouldn't it twine up every stick and bush and strong perennial it encountered?   

 

its frost-resistant foliage.  Akebia will be evergreen if you can just make it feel that it's growing in Zone 7.  In Zones 4, 5, and 6, it holds green foliage long after everything else but conifers and broadleaf evergreens have given up on foliage—or above-ground stems at all—and are trying to be proud of their naked stems and dead branches.  To have Akebia in full and green leaf for weeks after so many other species have thrown in the towel is a blessing, indeed.  

Flowering season

Spring: May here in Rhode Island.

Color combinations

Akebia 'Shiro Bano' goes with everything.

Partner plants

Because any white-flowered species is so cosmopolitan about color, partner plants for 'Shiro Bano' need to consider only form and habit.  Akebia foliage isn't large but overall, the vine is dense.  Airy companions such as ferns would be terrific.  And because Akebia is shade tolerant, the choice in ferns isn't limited to the ones that can handle a lot of sun.  

 

The smooth-edged mid-green foliage would also be enlivened by dark green conifers.  A yew hedge brings elegance and order to anything, Akebia included.  

 

Abekia growth is too rangy and quick for the vine to partner with a scandent shrub or another vine:  Akebia would just overwhelm it.  So no partnering clematis or roses, alas.     

Where to use it in your garden

Akebia needs to be sited where it's accessible so you can tidy up the growth or limit its spread.  As long as the location is practical for maintenance, you could plant Akebia to cover a chain-link fence.  The vine's a twiner, so it won't cover bare masonry, but if you attached wires with screw-eyes, then even a smooth wall could quickly have an Akebia veneer.  If there's a pathway alongside it, then the Akebia could be clipped when it's out of bounds; the veneer could be smooth and dense.      

Culture

Full sun or half shade, in any reasonable soil.  Akebia is not fussy!

How to handle it: The Basics

Akebia is nothing if not self-reliant.  Welcoming the vine to your garden—and feeling good about that decision years later—is a matter of knowing from the start that your location will give you access for the long-term.  Inevitably, you'll want to prune or even massacre the vine, and it would be a taunt, indeed, if you couldn't get as close to it as you wanted before striking the first blows.

 

The vine grows fast, too, so be ready right when you plant it for it to start twining.  Is it going to grow through a chain-link fence?  Chances are, the fence is already there, so just poke a couple of tips of the vine through the fence, and let it do the rest.  If you'd like it to grow up wires or through a trellis, install those first, not least so you don't trample the vine trying to do it after-the-fact.  

 

The vine is so hardy you can prune it at almost anytime, though because it flowers in the Spring, if you can hold off until the flowering is done, you'll have the biggest floral show.  But there will probably be a tendril or three that are completely out of line; prune them off whenever the peeve strikes you.

 

Akebia is not such a tight twiner that it can scramble up vertical wires and then stay there for good.  Successive stems twine up already-twined ones, but not as tightly, and the bulk gets so heavy that the vine slips down a bit, like old socks that no longer stay up.  Vertical wires are still the best choice—but add a horizontal wire every three feet, and especially right at the top, so there's enough "hand holds" for the vine to stay put.         

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

None.

Quirks or special cases

Akebia doesn't seed set well (or, therefore, form fruit)  if there isn't another cultivar nearby.  This could be just what you want if Akebia would otherwise self-seed.  (See "Downsides" below.)  But what if there's already other Akebia in the neighborhood?  If you're uncertain whether your vine will have the potential for self-seeding or not, plant it so that you can control its extent to a manageable size.  Then, if necessary, you could harvest the fruit (and therefore the seeds).  The fruit is considered edible in the vine's native lands of China, Japan, and Korea.

Downsides

Akebia can self-seed to the point of invasiveness; check here to learn if the USDA classifies Akebia as invasive where you're gardening.  I myself haven't noticed any self-seeding, but that's probably because 'Shiro Bano' is my only Akebia big enough to flower and fruit.  Akebia fruits better when there are several clones available.  When I get a couple of the variants established, too—see below—I may reconsider growing Akebia at all.  Or I may harvest the fruit.

Variants

The straight species, Akebia quinata, is well worth growing; its dusky pink-purple flowers are showy as well as fragrant at close-range, and suggest that the vine be planted with pink-friendly neighbors.  There's a variegated cultivar or two; I'm growing A. quinata 'Konin Nishiki', which is probably similar to 'Brookside Variegated', with leaves dotted and splashed with yellow and even some pink; pink flowers. 

 

I'm eager to try A. trifoliata, the three-leaf akebia, not just for the different foliage, but also because the flowers are truly chocolate in color, as deep brown as the highest-cacao Valrhona.  But most of all, A. longeracemosa, whose flowers, truly, are in long narrow dangling racemes that echo—at least in aspirational pendulosity if not actual dimension—those of wisteria.  In some pictures, the flowers look as dark as those of A. trifoliata, and the foliage is unusually narrow, too.   

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

By cuttings and by layering. 

Native habitat

Akebia quinata is native to Japan, China, and Korea.

 
 
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