When I was a kid, our family would make an annual summer trip to visit relatives in Hanover, Virginia. This was before interstate highways, and well before air-conditioning in the car, so we'd always leave early in the morning, well before dawn. Rousted from bed, and trundled dreamily into the back seat, the beginning of the trip was a bit mysterious, and somehow a grand adventure…but, boy, were we glad to get out of that car finally, late in the afternoon. My grandmother had a big yard, and it was surrounded by sweetly scented meadows and cow-pastures, and plenty of wildflowers. Here's a plant that grew next to her place, which I always remember fondly now, associating it with those fun-filled summer days and quiet evenings, the darkening skies filled first with twittering swifts, these giving it up later for bats, and finally, thousands of lightning-bugs.
I remember seeing this plant growing as a vigorous vine on top of a fence post out by her driveway. I remember big, brilliant red flowers (corollas, of course), each one strongly tubular, and red on the outside. (I thought the flowers resembled cigars.) The interior of the flower was yellowish, and I remember counting stamens inside: always four. I also remember seeing two or three big ants inside each flower…never figured out what exactly they were doing. Although they had no fragrance, the blossoms were extremely popular with bees, as well as hummingbirds.
This species is native throughout the Southeastern states, and well into the Midwest, as far north as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The plants grow in a variety of forested sites, including disturbed roadsides and field margins, and it really likes to climb, whenever it gets the chance. Young vines climb readily by means of tiny rootlets that grasp onto just about any hard surface…including the exterior wall of your house, if given the opportunity. The vines can become massive, and they may reach well into tree canopies, 60 or so feet up. Old vines may be several inches in diameter, commonly pale gray or sort of “blonde” colored, and the large ones sometimes split into several parallel segments near the base. The leaves are deciduous, and they have a kind of tropical look, with 10 to 12 toothy leaflets in pairs. The flowers end up producing a very stout bean-like pod, sharply pointed at both ends, which splits open eventually, along two lines. Quite a number of seeds are within, each one featuring two stumpy, gray wings. The seeds slowly dribble out over the winter, flying around in the breeze and settling some distance away from where they started.
This species has achieved a considerable amount of horticultural merit, and there are several named garden varieties now. As a native vine, it would be perfect in “roomy” backyards or open trellises, or maybe up a tree, as it really grows quickly, spreading rapidly...too rapidly for some, it turns out, who start pulling it up and muttering bad things about it.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email email@example.com.
[Answer: “Cow-itch vine,” “Trumpet creeper,” Campsis radicans]