We’ve all seen the movie…a man with a hat and a whip is traipsing through the jungle, looking for treasure. He comes upon a ruined temple and has to hack his way through all the vines in order to get inside. Of course, the underlying message here is that puny human temples are no match for the rapacious plant growth of the rainforest.
This is one movie myth that has a pretty strong basis in fact. Even here at the Butterfly Pavilion, if we don’t keep our machetes (really, just pruners and saws) handy, the rainforest greenery would quickly overtake anything that couldn’t walk or flutter away. And the fastest growers are our vines and lianas, which seem to double in size every time I look away.
It makes sense that tropical rainforests host a lot of vines. Jungle plants have access to plenty of water but not much sun. It’s a race to the top for plants that need light, and vines grow quickly enough to swallow entire trees in their leafy embrace. Vines link much of the tropical rainforest canopy, so much so that if one tree falls, it might pull down a couple of neighbors down with it.
In the Wings of the Tropics exhibit, our vines fall into two categories: lianas, or opportunistic vines with woody bases (think Tarzan swinging through the jungle) and bole climbers, which pull themselves up with stubby little roots. One example of a liana, the pink coral vine (Antignon leptopus), is the number one nectar source for most of our butterflies on display. Because of its importance, we let it clamber where it wants, within reason. We won’t let it walk off with your Aunt Mildred, for example.
Colorado is no one’s idea of a tropical rainforest, but gardeners here can still use vines to create a lush and inviting nook or arbor. Perennial vines such as clematis and trumpet vine provide food for pollinators and are hardy in our temperate climate. Or, this summer, why not create a morning glory tent? Use branches, bamboo poles or even PVC pipe to create a teepee structure in a sunny area, then plant morning glory seeds at the base of each pole. Water frequently, then as the vines grow, train them up the poles. By late summer, you’ll have a shady hideaway, complete with gorgeous blooms. And, the best part is that you won’t have to hack your way out with a machete!
Posted by Amy Yarger, Butterfly Pavilion Horticulture Director
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