Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Fleece Vine - The Plant For Permanence

By Marshall Clewis

For sheer exuberance of fall bloom, two woody climbers, the sweet autumn clematis (Clematis paniculata) and the fleece vine (Polygonum auberti) are particularly noteworthy. The clematis has been known and cherished for generations for its masses of white flowers and pleasant fragrance. The fleece vine, or silver lace vine as it is sometimes known, also breaks into a froth of flowers in early fall. Its flowers are whiter than those of clematis, though unfortunately they have no fragrance. Fleece vine is of more recent introduction, and only now, after almost 75 years, are gardeners beginning to appreciate its many good qualities.

Like so many of the shrubs we welcome to our gardens, fleece vine has its home in western China. There it was en-countered by the missionary P. G. Aubert in 1889. He sent seeds to the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The young plants grew rap-idly and were distributed the fol-lowing autumn. It belongs to the buckwheat or knotweed family (Polygonaceae), a widely distributed group that comprises several ornamental species, a few that are grown for food and several that are ubiquitous and aggressive weeds.

Fleece vine is a vigorous climber with bright green leaves that average around 2 inches in length ; they are roughly oval in outline and more or less heart-shaped at the base. Unlike most free-growing climbers, as actinidia and celastrus, the young stems are slender and not heavy and coarse in appearance. Because of the slender stems and relatively small leaves, fleece vine makes an excellent fine-textured screen. It climbs by twining about any convenient support; it has no way of attaching itself to stone or brick, like ivy has, and must have a wire or wooden structure to support it.

The small white flowers, somewhat suggestive of buckwheat flowers, are borne in long, branched lateral clusters. During the summer a few flowers are produced sporadically, giving a suggestion of the wealth of bloom to follow. In late August or early September the plants erupt into a mass of fleecy white flowers that often cover the top of the vine. They are particularly effective when viewed against a clear blue sky. The flowers are attractive for several weeks and they are followed by the three-winged fruits, each containing a shiny black seed, which are mildly decorative.

Because of its rapid growth, fleece vine is valuable in achieving a quick effect in new plantings. With good growing conditions it can make 15 or 20 feet of growth in one season, and scrambling over a wall or pergola it will go a long way in relieving the sparse appearance of a new garden. It is at home rambling over stumps and stone walls and many readers will recall how attractive it was on the wire fences around the New York World's Fair a few years ago. When planted at the base of an old or slowly dying tree it will soon climb to the top and cover the bare branches with a foam of white flowers.

Like the majority of garden shrubs and southern vines, fleece vine makes its best growth in rich, loamy soil. It is adaptable, however, and will grow well under average garden conditions. Vine yard fleece vines prefers full sunlight and, while it will get along in light shade, it will not be so vigorous nor flower so freely.

In northern New York and in New England, however, it often dies to the ground, but new growth from the base is so vigorous that it soon recovers lost ground.

Propagation of fleece vine is by the usual methods. Seed germinates readily and the young plants grow rapidly, sometimes producing a few flowers in the autumn of their second year. Cut-tings strike without difficulty and old plants can be dug up and chopped apart. For the average gardener, however, it is simpler and more satisfactory to buy established plants from a nursery.

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