With gardens getting smaller and smaller all the time, I am finding that there is increasing interest in climbing plants. These versatile plants can adapt to limited spaces, and are particularly well suited to horizontally-challenged gardeners. Anyone with a fence has an ideal opportunity to fill that vertical space with a climbing plant of some sort.
But what to plant? There are many exotic climbers that are very well known in Australian gardens but if you are not into the heady perfume of jasmine or the rampant antics of wisteria (lovely as it is in flower), then you may want to consider some of Australia’s very useful native climbers.
For more information about the climbers in this article I suggest you click this link, to get to the index of all the plants in my comprehensive Gardening with Angus plant database. Just go to the genus name, such as Pandorea, and you will find a range of choices from which to choose something that will suit your preferences and garden conditions.
Before we get down to the detail of the various groups of Australian climbers, it is worth mentioning that many Australian climbers are not only able to climb upwards onto whatever support is provided, but can potentially also be used as ground covers. A word of caution, however, in that climbing plants of any origin will ruthlessly exploit nearby trees and shrubs as supports. So, if you want to use climbers as ground covers then it must be understood that they will either not be planted close to trees and shrubs, or be pruned to ensure they are not allowed to climb onto nearby plants.
Australian climbers are found in a diverse range of habitats and climatic conditions, from rainforests to dry eucalypt. As such, it is important to consider which species will best suit your particular needs and garden conditions. Many of these plants are ‘pioneer’ species that colonise disturbed soils after events such as bushfires, with members of the pea family (Fabaceae) being particularly important. Such species are particularly useful for difficult situations such as embankments with exposed subsoil that require rapid cover. Fabulously descriptive common names such as Happy Wanderer (Hardenbergia species) and Running Postman (Kennedia species) illustrate the fact that these species can be used as ground covers.
Native sarsparilla (Hardenbergia violacea) is arguably the most adaptable of all Australian climbers and comes in white, pink or purple and there are also more compact shrubby forms such as ‘Minihaha’.
The coral peas (Kennedia species) are also an outstanding group of twining climbers with an unusual range of colours available from the deep red of the dusky coral pea (Kennedia rubicunda) to the iridescent bright red and yellow of the coral pea (Kennedia coccinea), through to the very unusual yellow and black of the black coral pea (Kennedia nigricans). As well as the wild species being widely available to gardeners, there are now many cultivars that have been created by plant breeders and nurseries.
For my money the genus Pandorea is perhaps the most ornamental of all the Australian climbers and creepers. The bower of beauty (Pandorea jasminoides) produces flush after flush of its showy trumpet-like flowers from spring right through to autumn. It varies in colour from pure white (the cultivars ‘Wedding Bellz’ and ‘Lady Di’) to strong pink with a crimson throat (‘Flirty Bellz’). There are also new cultivars with white throated flowers such as ‘Funky Bellz’ and ‘Southern Belle’, and these two plants also have fairly compact growth habits that allow them to be pruned into a shrub-like growth habit.
The wonga wonga vine (Pandorea pandorana) is a common inhabitant of eucalypt forests all along the Australian east coast. It is particularly showy when it flowers in spring but it must be said that it has a narrow flowering window of several weeks in contrast to the bower of beauty (Pandorea jasminoides) that flowers over many months. The Wonga Wonga vine is a very vigorous grower that comes in a range of colour forms also ranging from the usual small creamy flowers with crimson throat to pure white (‘Snowbells) or even golden colours such as the cultivar ‘Golden Showers’.
Another member of the family (Bignoniaceae) that Pandorea belongs to is the Fraser Island creeper (Tecomanthe hillii). It has gorgeous, glossy deep green, pinnate leaves and large pink tubular flowers over several weeks in spring.
If you are looking for climbers more for attractive foliage than flowers then the grape ivies (Cissus species) are very useful plants, particularly for shady areas. I find that they make superb ground covers for shady areas and are not difficult to manage in that context.
The kangaroo vine (Cissus antarctica) has particularly ornamental foliage with toothed margins that has also made it popular as an indoor plant. It will surprise many gardeners to learn that these plants are relatively closely related to true grapes (Vitis vinifera) but unfortunately their fruits are not particularly palatable, a minor point given their ornamental value.
The native grape (Cissus hypoglauca) has smooth leaf margins and glossy green pinnate foliage and actually bears small, edible grape-like fruits. Also known as the giant water vine this plant is very adaptable and makes a fantastic alternative to lawns in those difficult shady positions beneath trees.
You may also be surprised to know that Australia also has some interesting passionflowers (Passiflora species) that make spectacular garden climbers. The best of the lot for my money is the blazing red passionflower (Passiflora cinnabarina) which has an attractively lobed leaf as well. Unfortunately, the fruits are not particularly palatable but when you see the flower you will forget about food…..
And last but by no means least on my list of favourite Australian climbers is the snake vine (Hibbertia scandens) that has found great favour as a ground cover in public parks and on roadside verges. It is extremely tough and adaptable and can grow quite happily on coastal sand dunes and when given support to grow on it will twine its way upwards in snake-like fashion.
So if you are one of those gardeners that have run out of horizontal space then why not start thinking laterally about your garden by going vertical.