Fairchild’s Vine Collection

The Tropical Garden, Fall 2014

By Marilyn Griffiths

In February of 1941, Mrs. John Semple, in her dedication of the new Vine Pergola at Fairchild, said, in part, “The vines, next to the palms perhaps, constitute the most striking feature of the tropics. This collection of flowering vines with its few dozen species is a tiny beginning, and yet it is the first attempt, I am told, to make a special feature of vines in any tropical garden.” Little did Mrs. Semple knew that 73 years later, her pet project would become one of the favorite locations in the Garden. Take a stroll under the Vine Pergola. Touch the gnarled old trunks that have been twining for decades. Cool off in the shade and relish the forms and hues of the flowers that appear throughout the year.

The Vine Pergola’s structure was designed by William Lyman Phillips, the Garden’s landscape architect, and was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps public work relief program. A charming description of the process can be found in Lucita Wait’s Fairchild Tropical Garden: The First Ten Years.

Today, we have 39 species of vines growing on the posts and columns of the Pergola, as well as on the masts in the lawn nearby. From the stunning aqua blooms of Strongylodon macrobotrys (jade vine) to the delicate flowers of the Stigmaphyllon sagraeanum—our vines hold a special place in the ornamental plant world. Other vines and lianas (woody, climbing vines) grow throughout the Garden. A visit to the Richard H. Simons Rainforest reveals many climbing aroids in the genera Philodendron and Monstera. Passiflora suberosa (corky-stemmed passionflower) is our native vine and the favorite larval host for Zebra Longwing and Gulf fritillary butterflies, and can be seen popping up wherever birds have deposited its seeds.

Vines have different methods of climbing trees or trellises. Twining plants such as Tecomanthe dendrophila (New Guinea trumpet creeper) twist their stems around supports to reach the sun. Bougainvillea has sharp hooks to grab onto surfaces and lift itself up. Tendrils (modified stems, leaves or petioles) provide another mode of movement. Tetrastigma voinierianum (chestnut vine) has very strong tendrils that twist around anything in their path. These thread- or string-like structures help the plant travel long distances in search of support and sun. Charles Darwin conducted several experiments in which he observed and measured the movements of twining plants. He found that they grew in wide arcs in their quest for light and support. An excellent account of Darwin’s experiments can be found in Scientific Papers of Asa Gray.

One of the oldest plants on the Pergola is Derris scandens. The Malay jewel- vine was received in 1939. The original plant material was collected in Bangladesh for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Plant Industry. It has lovely clusters of pink to white flowers that are followed by flat seed pods.

The most popular vine in the collection is the Strongylodon macrobotrys (jade vine). As early as late January, long racemes of buds start appearing along it. Soon, aqua flowers emerge, fairly dripping from the Pergola’s cross beams. The blooms have a distant resemblance to pea flowers, understandably, as the jade vine is in the legume family. Our records show that flowering continues through May and sometimes into June.

A variety of leaf, stem, flower and climbing mechanisms can be found in our important collection of vines. A former researcher at Fairchild, Jack B. Fisher used this collection in his morphological studies of lianas. He writes in a 1990 volume of the Garden Bulletin: “Visitors admire the Fairchild Pergola because of its interesting and beautiful flowering vines, but scientists see it as a unique resource for better understanding the biology of vines, one of nature’s most amazing life forms.”