Southern New England’s Native Vines

Stamford CT

There are a few native vines that get all the press. These are good choices for use as groundcovers and as “drapes” for  walls, fences, arbors, and trellises. The good news is that there are several more excellent choices for the garden. In addition, there are some native vines that aren’t as well suited for the garden but are nice to appreciate in wild areas. Where possible, I’ve also included comparison information for foreign invasive vines from the same families. Consider this a major “plant this, not that” hint.

Native Vines that Get All the Press

We all know, and I hope love, Virginia creeper AKA woodbine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). While the summer leaf color is similar to some poison ivy and it often grows in the same place, woodbine has 5 leaflets with toothed edges. Woodbine, when grown in full sun, has dark blue berries and lovely red fall color. Further, woodbine, a grape relative, has grape-like woody vines with prominent joints. I have heard it said that woodbine can get heavy enough to harm its tree host but I’ve never seen this in the wild except when the tree is also ready dead or dying from another cause. In the garden, I use woodbine as a shade groundcover, often mixed with common blue violets; it is also wonderful on a stone wall or wooden fence. I even have one as a outdoor balcony bonsai that’s now 17 years old. Woodbine is easily grown from cuttings.

Woodbine on an weathered wood fence.

Poison Ivy, of course, also gets a lot of press, and you should make sure that you can ID all forms of it all year round. It has the 3 leaflets which can be smooth-edged, noded or notched (historically experts disagreed as to whether poison ivy was one species or perhaps three or five. DNA studies are probably now settling this controversy). All poison ivy, though, has woody stems, red-tipped new leaves, and white berries. The young vines are smooth; the mature ones have small red hairs along the stem. Watch out for the fallen leaves in autumn (no longer in groups of three!) and never burn any part of the plant – the smoke is very dangerous to eyes and lungs. FYI: Only humans are allergic to poison ivy; squirrels nest in it; birds love the fruit; and goats are glad to eat the vine to the ground for you.

Next up, is the lovely Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). I’ve never seen it in the wild – only its much too-common invasive Asian kin. Believe it or not, there are FIVE alien honeysuckles on the state’s invasives list. The botanists say one way to tell the native is that its stamens extend beyond the edge of the petals. Plant the well-behaved native trumpet honeysuckle anywhere you’d like to see an attractive, semi-evergreen vine as well as hummingbirds and butterflies. According to Floridata, it also does well in containers. In CT, the vine starts flowering in spring and continues sporadically throughout the summer. See UConn for more cultural information.

Similarly, there’s our American Bittersweet (Celastus scandens) which in my area is totally lost to its invasive Asian kin. Oriental Bittersweet interbreeds with the American bittersweet when it’s not outcompeting it or strangling every tree it can get its thick, snaky trunk around. If you can get your hands on genuine American bittersweet, this would be a good one to reintroduce. Unlike the Asian thug-cousin, American Bittersweet is a slow growing, well behaved plant. Indeed, so slow growing that I suspect that over-harvesting also played a role in its demise.

Then there’s fluffy native Clematis, Virgin’s Bower  (Clematis virginiana), which is said to have been present in all parts of Connecticut as late as the 1980’s. I haven’t seen it here recently; only the quickly spreading, still-sold-in-stores but highly invasive Sweet Autumn (Clematis terniflora).Please don’t buy or harbor this latter plant. Tip from The Connecticut Botanical Society: “Virgin’s bower is easily confused with Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora or Clematis paniculata), an Asian vine that has escaped from gardens. The two vines can be distinguished by their leaves; on a virgin’s bower, almost all leaves are have jagged teeth. Sweet autumn clematis has rounded leaves, which are mostly untoothed.”

Lastly, in the gets-all-the-press category is Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans). I say, do NOT grow this one.  First, botanists advise that it is historically native only as far north as may be NJ or NY and has only spread into CT in recent times. Further, once established, it is very aggressive – “rampant growth” is a nice way of putting it. Lastly, it grows only too easily from root fragments so it is almost impossible to eradicate once established. OK, you’ve been warned — plant at your peril.

wild yam with damselfly, Bartlett Arboretum woodlands

Native Vines You May Never Have Heard Of

Now, for the ones that you may never have heard of, first on my list is delicate Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa). This is a lovely, petite deciduous vine with heart-shaped leaves, bell-like flowers and ornamental seed casings.  As an extra plus, the leaves turn a buttery yellow in the fall. Perfect for damp, part shade or woodland conditions, and easy to start from seeds if you wait until the seed casings have turned brown to harvest. It is spreading locally, so it is probably not a deer favorite.

Mature wild yam vine, Bartlett Arboretum wetalnds, Stamford CT

Next, for me, would be that glorious legume knows as Groundnut (Apios Americana), recently highlighted by Ellen Sousa as a traditional New England food plant. It’s a medium-sized deciduous vine with a compound leaf and flowers that resemble maroon-to-chocolate sweet peas. Groundnut’s handsome flowers appear in late summer when we need “fill-in” garden color as well as something native for the local pollinators. It grows easily from seed. Groundnut occurs naturally in damp sun or part shade and likes to climb trees. However, I have seen it growing wild, bird-spread, in gardens. It can smother its host if not controlled, so at Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve, we give it a tree or two of its own to overwhelm (usually half-dead snags or bushes) but otherwise keep it cut to about the 6 foot level on trees. It can be trained to grace fencing, snags or brush piles.

Beautiful, beautiful ground nut – and you can eat it! Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve, Stamford CT

There are several other wild local peas; the showiest of which is the Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) with pretty, papery tri-fold leaflets and delicate purple flowers. It makes a good ground cover and is a favorite of Scalzi Riverwalk rabbits.

Young rabbit with a mouthful of hog peanut leaves; you can see the flowers in the upper left. Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve.

Climbing Boneset AKA Hempweed (Mikania scandens) is a native vine relative of boneset,  joe-pye weed, and snake root. When it blooms in late summer, in swampy sunny areas, it is a major attractor of the most amazing array of pollinators. However, be warned: in distributed areas with plenty of water and sun, it can grow out of control, overwhelming other plants. At Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve, we strictly limit it to covering dead brush. Good plant for a larger, wild area with plenty of sun and water.

Climbing boneset with honey bees, Bartlett Arboretum wetlands.

Moonseed (Menispermum canadense)  is a new one for many. In Southern Connecticut, I find it naturally occurring in disturbed understory. It’s deciduous but with part sun and good moisture it can cover a several feet of hedge in a summer. It has attractive, leathery leaves, and small white flowers; I’ve never seen the fruit which must be getting eaten immediately because the plant does get spread around. The fruit is said to ripen late season and look like wild grapes BUT it is also said to be highly poisonous, even fatal, to humans. Accordingly, I’d leave this one in the wild.

moonseed, Cove Island Wildlife Sanctury

The best known local grape is the Fox Grape (Vitis labrusca). Fox grape looks and acts nothing like its highly invasive Asian kin the Porcelainberry Vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata)  that smothers everything in sight along sunny roadsides. Fox grape has large, smooth, leathery leaves; porcelainberry vine has papery leaves with a quilty texture; the porcelainberry leaf comes in several shapes, and can be variegated (nursery escapee?). The edge of the fox grape leaf has shallow indentations with little points in between; the porcelainberry has a serrated edge. The commercial Concord grape is said to be a cultivar of the Fox grape.

I have seen the well-meaning but uniformed cut down Fox Grape in the conservation areas since they imagine it will hurt its tree host in some way. Please leave this naturally-occurring vine to nurture insects and birds. It is actually quite lovely and well behaved.

Fox Grape, just leafing out in the spring.

There is also smaller-leafed Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia) which I’ve not seen in our deer-ridden wilds. The leaf has a deeply toothed edge which should distinguish it from fox grape or porcelain vine. According to EarthTones Nursery, this grape’s leaves and fruit are edible.

Two good woodland groundcover vines are the delicate, evergreen Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and the rambling caneberry, semi-evergreen Dewberry (Rubus flagellaris).

Partridgeberry, Bartlett Arboretum woodlands.

Two under-appreciated semi-evergreen woody vines are Roundleaf Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) and Cat Greenbrier(Smilax glauca) (variegated leaf). Both have bell-shaped flowers and dark blue berries. They grow in the understory in open woodlands and the moister forested areas where the invasive rosa multiflora can take over. In damper areas, the greenbriers can create a nice tangle to provide habitat as well as food. I have not tried these two in cultivated garden conditions but I think they would mix well and not get out of hand with a bit of judicious pruning. They are fairly slow growing. I have seen a cat greenbrier looking lovely on a chain linked fence at a local park (dry, part shade).

Greenbrier can improve the looks of even this chain link fence. Scalzi Park

A good annual, quick cover for damp sun is the Bur Cucumber (Sicyos angulatus) – it’s a wild native cucumber with large showy leaves and clusters of small spiny fruit very late season. From a distance, the leaves can be mistaken for fox grape but up close the familiar cucumber tendrils immediately give it away. There is also a single-seed wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata)  but it is rare in my area.

Bur Cucumber with wasp, the local pollinators do enjoy the flowers.

Vines to Watch Out For

There are several non-native morning glories running around loose in Southern CT, the best known is the notorious invasive Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) with its impossibly long roots. It has the distinction of being in the Top Ten for the worlds’ most serious weeds. Many conservation area managers don’t even try to kill it –just keep it from smothering shrubs and forbes while praying for a biological control. The look-a-like Hedge False Bindweed (Calystegia sepium) has a mixed native/introduced status and is generally considered a noxious weed. The big ID point to remember is that the morning glories are by no means the only local vines with spathe-, shield- or heart-shaped leaves, so unless the flowers are present (they look like any other morning glory –a dead give away), check your ID – you might have climbing boneset, one of the buckwheats, etc.

Before wrapping up, Dodder (Cuscuta spp.) gets mention. Dodder is of mixed native and alien origins. It is an annual parasitic vine that consists of masses of orange string with white flowers and tan, round seed cases. Most people (other than some botanists I know) prefer to control it which is easily done by suppressing the seed production.

Lastly, there’s the Polygonum (Buckwheat family) which has many local members – including the highly invasive Japanese knotweed and mile-a-minute.  All are non-woody; many favor moist places.  Climbing False Buckwheat (Polygonum scandens) and Fringed Black Bindweed (Polygonum cilinode) are two small vines with heart-shaped leaves. The vine-like Polygonums also include the riparian buffer zone thumbtears, e.g., Arrowleaf Tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum), which are attractive and high value to wildlife but you don’t want to touch the bristles.  There is also an array of smartweeds, some native, some introduced, some highly invasive (particularly the aquatic ones).

Some more local invasive vines: Japanese Hop Vine, Winter Creeper vine and other vine euonymus, Swallow-wort (milkweed family) , church and English Ivy, certain aralias, wisteria, hardy kiwi …. Unfortunately the list just keeps getting longer, so please plant native.

Additonal posts in this series are:

To find these and other native plants for your garden, please visit the Ultimate Guide to Finding Native Plants to locate your nearby native plant nurseries and local native plant societies

© 2012 – 2013, Sue Sweeney. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Sue, What a great way to round out your series on native plants for southern NE, I’ve bookmarked them all. I am planning to plant some native vines in my garden this season to cover a shed in the dry shade so I’ll be referring to your post again soon. It’s too bad more of these vines are not readily available in nurseries – next to all the brightly flowered eotics.
    Debbie recently posted..You Can Grow That! ~ Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Earth Tones has local genotypes of several of the vines. American Beauty Natives (sold at numerous local nurseries including Sam Bridges) and New England Wildflower Society have regional genotypes.

  2. says

    What a great post! With all of the introduced, invasive vines that we have to contend with, it’s nice to give some proper attention to the beautiful, natives !
    Did you know that the ground nut was a staple food crop for the Native American tribes of the North East? They would harvest and prepare the root, somewhat like a potato. I have tried it and it is actually quite tasty!
    Forest Keeper recently posted..Native Plant Species – “You Can Grow That”

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Where were you able to get ground nut that was safe to eat? Around here is grows wild in the riparian buffers which unfortunately means possible contamination with heavy metals, pesticides, petroleum, etc.

  3. says

    Thanks for this great post (and all the earlier ones, too). I learned of 4 “new” native vines for Kansas by googling the vines you had listed: groundnut, American hogpeanut, virgin bower, and wild yam. None are common here (which is probably why I hadn’t heard of them) but all are native to at least some areas of the eastern part of the state and are therefore worth trialling here in southcentral Kansas, if I can find a reasonable source.
    Gaia gardener recently posted..A "Weeding Mantra" Time of Year

  4. Sue Sweeney says

    Heather – very interesting and shows the problem of using common names but I can’t remember the Latin so there you go.

    Query: When you, siting in MN, say “farther south” just how far north/south of me, in CT, is that?
    Checking the NRCS map, it looks like Parthenocissus vitacea (P. inserta)(woodbine) is absent only from the Southeast and actually does VA.;

    while Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper) skips most of the west/northwest

  5. says

    Somehow I missed this post the first time around but a great list of vines, Sue! The Climbing Boneset and Wild Yam are new to me and I’ll be looking for those in my travels…I’m with Carole, I would love to see pics of your bonsai Virginia Creeper – I bet it’s very full and lush! Do you have bird visitors to it on the balcony?
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!


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