My favourite legend from the ancient world has always been the love story associated with Hanging Gardens of Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon is believed to have built a mighty edifice with tiered terraced gardens, elaborate screw-based irrigation systems and parterres dripping with shade-giving vines to alleviate the homesickness of his Persian wife, the beautiful Amytis. She missed the flora and green topography of her native Media (now in northern Iran) and so her husband built a palace in arid, flat Babylon which resembled the cool vistas of a green mountain.
As our cities grow hotter with each passing summer, we all need a dash of Nebuchadnezzar in our lives. The west-facing part of my home used to be unbearable for almost half the year, due to the harsh afternoon heat of the scorching summer sun. With careful planting of deciduous creepers that come alive with flowers, I am relieved to say the temperature has been brought down by an impressive 10 degrees C. Plus I have the added bonus of birdsong, because bulbuls and humming birds nest in the quisqualis (Rangoon creeper) and wisteria.
Encouraged by the success of this experiment, I created a large water-proofed planter on my first-floor balcony and planted a fast-growing evergreen climber. I trained it over my water-tank on the second floor and am happy to confirm that the water in my taps is no longer unpleasantly warm.
Versatile and vigorous, loved as much for their scented flowers or dappled foliage, vines provide greening of vertical spaces, which is especially useful in urban areas. They play an important role in landscape architecture and modern homes should be fit with supports at the construction stage. Not only do vines create a barrier against the blistering sun, they cool the air as moisture evaporates from their leaves. With some effort at water-proofing, hardy climbers such as bougainvillea can really cut the heat on terraces and rooftops.
An old-fashioned word, which is not restricted to a gardener’s lexicon, is liana. The term conjures up the image of Tarzan swinging from tree to tree on strong woody ropes, but for practical purposes it is a generic word for vines. Many varietals have arrived by sea through the efforts of our colonisers, braving long ocean voyages from as far away as South America to make India their home. The bougainvillea, petra, Antignon Leptopus (coral vine) and mandevilla that we take so much for granted in India are all native to South America. The reverse is true as well and history records that early English botanists supplied Kew Gardens in London with as many as 7,000 rare Himalayan plants.
Liana are plants that need comparatively little ground space and yet provide privacy and shade, and act as screens that also block out noise pollution. In larger gardens they can be trailed along fenced areas to conceal ugly but necessary spaces such as compost pits or garbage bins. In a city with soaring summer temperatures they offer the cool relief of a shaded arbour for evenings spent away from air conditioners. The only important thing is that they usually cannot withstand their own weight and need some kind of support. Pergolas over windows, entrance porches, boundary walls all benefit from the planting of creepers, which soften hard lines and wrap homes in garlands of flowers.
Climbers can be divided into three broad categories – those that twine with the help of tendrils such as the sweet-pea; others that adhere to walls with the help of tiny pads or rootlets such as Ficus pumila (climbing fig); and those such as the climbing rose which use thorn-like protuberances to hook themselves for support.
Creepers are too weak-stemmed to support their own weight, just as climbers are, but the distinguishing difference is they have a horizontal spread along the ground. They generally give out rootlets at nodes to anchor themselves and are good for checking hillside erosion and providing attractive groundcover. The hardy bougainvillea, though classified as a vine, is an exception – it thrives in the heat and despite neglect, develops a stem woody enough for it to bear its own weight, and takes on the structure of a shrub.
The variety of creepers available is so wide that a carefully-planned garden can use them to further enhance the look of the home. For example, a house with a redbrick facade can benefit from blue or white blossoms such as Thunbergia grandiflora (blue trumpet vine) or Petrea volubilis (purple wreath) and Clematis paniculata (sweet autumn clematis) and Beaumontia murtonii (herald’s trumpet).
For the busy homemaker or novice gardener with scarcity of water, a bougainvillea can be a godsend to screen off ugly areas or noisy roads without too much care apart from a biannual pruning to stimulate flowering. Many colours and varieties are available and for roof gardens they thrive in pots. These plants are resistant to pests and only suffer from wet-feet syndrome when grown in pots, so they must be watered sparingly and sand should be added to the potting mix.
For fragrance in the garden, several varieties of climbing jasmine drench the air with sweet perfume, as do the milder scents of both the single and double quisqualis. There seems to be a correlation between shades of white and perfume and so we inhale the aromas of clematis, madhavilata, hiptage or lavang lata, malati and frangipani vines.
Some very striking creepers that capture all the limelight when in flower are the dramatic Thunbergia mysorensis (Indian clock vine), Pyrostegia venusta (flaming trumpet) and Aristolochia littoralis (calico flower). The sheer vividness of bloom and very decorative aspects of the flowers make these high-accent plants that dominate the landscape.
Edible climbers also fulfil a dual function. Most commonly cultivated worldwide is the bean family and the Hyacinth bean with its profusion of mauve flowers complemented by the purple-tinged pods of the fruit is the most ornamental. The same goes for several members of the gourd family, although these are best in kitchen gardens. Passion flower in the right climate – such as on the coast or in the north east – yields bushels of fruit in harvest, as does the kiwi. The latter needs a male plant to be planted along with several females, and thrives in more temperate zones. The pride of place of course goes to the grape which benefits from judicious pruning.
Trial and error
For enthusiasts with limited space in balconies and terraces, pot-bound climbers are ideal. Quick-growing ones that spread on netting or bamboo supports are perfect for creating shade in summer. Mile-a-minute comes to mind, but I prefer railway creeper (Ipomea digitata) and the elephant creeper (Argyreia nervosa) for their flowers.
Care can be quite specific but broadly includes bi-annual feeding with bone-meal dressing added into well-rotted farmyard manure to promote flowering. Staking and pruning, especially of vigorous varietals, are also to be undertaken. If grown in pots, drainage is very important. A thorough rinsing of leaves with a hose also makes the plants happy in these inclement times of pollution and dust.
Climbers and creepers are well worth the effort though some, like mandevilla, do tend to die out in extreme temperatures. But there is always trial and error and as Kermit the Frog once said – going green was never easy.