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Plant Identification of Tropical Climbers

fleurs de jasmin image by Unclesam from

Tropical vines are popular in outdoor landscapes in warm climates, as well as in greenhouses and other sunny spaces in cold winter climates. Some of the most popular types include passionflower (Passiflora); mandevilla; jasmine (Jasminum); Gelsemium, Clerodendron; Bougainvillea; Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia) and Allamanda. Commercially available tropical climbers are often hybrids of species originally native to various regions of the Southern Hemisphere. In addition to clambering up support structures like arches and trellis, some shorter tropical climbers can be grown in hanging baskets.

Colorful Mandevillas

Mandevilla is a member of the Apocynaceae or dogbane family, and is characterized by glossy, green, ovoid to elliptical leaves, a semi-woody base and large, showy flowers. The funnel-shaped base of each flower opens out to five petal-like lobes. The plants will climb to about 3 feet if grown in containers, and taller if grown outdoors. Probably the most popular mandevilla is 'Alice Dupont', a pink-flowered hybrid developed in the United States. Mandevillas are also available in shades of red and white.

Fragrant Jasmine

Jasmine is a shrubby vine, fabled for its intensely fragrant, five-petaled flowers. Several species are popular in commerce. Jasminum polyanthemum, or winter jasmine, bears white flowers (sometimes with a tinge of pink on the outside), with somewhat leathery leaflets clustered in groups of five to seven. Jasminum officinale, also known as "hardy jasmine," is more cold tolerant than other species and can survive outdoors in USDA zone 6. Like other jasmines, its leaflets are rounded at the base and pointed at the ends. The flowers are white. Jasminum grandiflorum is not cold hardy, but is similar in appearance to other jasmines, with a sprawling habit. In some varieties, the white flowers are double in form.


passion flower image by Pat Lalli from

Passionflower (Passiflora) belongs to the genus Passifloraceae, which contains about 350 species of climbing plants. The passionflower has long been popular for its blooms and distinctive fruit. Identifying passionflowers is easy if the flowers themselves are present. The "flower" is actually an array of five bracts and five petals, giving the appearance of 10 petals. The flowers contain a circle of long filaments emanating from the center, with stamens and styles raised above the flower on a stalk. The leaves are often dissected with an odd number (three or five) of lobes.


Red Orange Bougainvillea image by verdantspaces from

In warm climates, Bougainvillea, a South American native, can be seen blanketing walls and other supports. The flowers are small, yellow and insignificant, but each is surrounded by three vivid bracts in colors ranging from pink through red, orange and purple. The leaves are usually alternate on the stems. Some hybrids can be grown in hanging baskets, with stems that only reach 2 to 3 feet. Larger species can grow to heights of 5 feet or more with support. Bougainvillea varieties sometimes also have variegated leaves and/or doubled layers of bracts.

Dutchman's Pipe

The flowers of Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia) make the genus unmistakable. The long, tubular blooms, which can be 10 or more inches in length, open out into heart-shaped lips. Some of the showier species like Aristolochia gigantea have maroon to chocolate-purple flowers netted with white veins. The vines are woody and the leaves can be heart-shaped or ovate. Aristolochia can be grown in containers, with some of the commercially available varieties climbing to only 3 feet. The vines grow to much greater heights when planted outdoors in climates that mimic their habitats in Mexico and Central and South America.

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