cardinal climber and its cousins, annual vines that are hummingbird favorites

ipomoea multifida cardinal climber vineIN SCALE, SHAPE, AND COLOR IT SUITS THEM—and it suits me, too, since I’m likewise mad for red, the way ruby-throated hummingbirds are. I’m happy to accommodate the Northeast’s only breeding hummingbird species in any way I can, enjoying their high-energy antics from spring through fall. Since they find the so-called cardinal climber positively irresistible, I always make room for that flashy little morning glory relative in the garden.

ipomoea multifida cardinal climberThe cardinal climber, Ipomoea x multifida, is a cross between Ipomoea quamoclit (the cypress vine, native to Mexico and tropical America) and Ipomoea coccinea, a red morning glory. Every year I endeavor to grow that first parent, quamoclit, too—for its truly star-shaped flowers (the cardinal climber’s are more pentagon than star, left) and even finer-textured foliage (the hybrid’s somewhat less-fine leaf detail is below). And every year I fail, because some places seem to have little regard for keeping things straight as far as the cardinal climber and the cypress vine go. I’ve bought seeds of both, and seedlings of both, year after year, and usually only get the hybrid cardinal climber.


ipomoea multifida cardinal climber foliuageI have to say I was a little relieved to see that the Chicago-based blogger who calls himself Mr. Brown Thumb, Ramon Gonzalez, has been similarly frustrated (misery loves company and all that). And also pleased to see that Ramon’s and my common affection for the cypress vine was shared by Thomas Jefferson, who grew it at Monticello.

Whichever of these hummingbird favorites you grow, treat them like other morning glories: For a headstart (especially in short-season Northern garden areas like mine) sow indoors and grow under lights, sowing 4-6 weeks before final frost. Soak the seed in warm water for a few hours first, in order to soften the hard coat that protects it. In areas with longer growing seasons, direct sow pre-soaked seeds around the last frost date. The vines take about 12-14 weeks to reach blooming size, hence the early indoor sowing to get a jump. All morning glories are slow to germinate; don’t be surprised if the seeds make you wait a week or even a couple.

Space the plants about a foot apart, and provide sun and about 10 feet of support (I’ve had years when then vines reached 15 feet, and other times they stayed at maybe 8). Next year in my unending quest to get the straight species quamoclit, I’ll buy seeds from my old friend Marilyn Barlow at Select Seeds/Antique Flowers, who I’m confident will have it right since old-style things line cypress vine are her specialty (she has the cardinal climber, too, but you have lots more options for Ipomoea x multifida).

ONE MORE AVIAN TWIST: Despite a shared common name, the Northern cardinals take no interest whatsoever in the cardinal climber, preferring not nectar, but a diet of seeds, fruit and also insects. Regarding the latter menu item, the ruby-throated hummingbirds agree: delicious, yes, but make their bugs pint-sized, please, such as gnats and mosquitoes and perhaps the occasional spider—not the crickets and beetles and moths that the much larger red bird can manage to gobble up. You know me, I know what birds like. (And more on what hummingbirds eat, and how they migrate, is here.)

Spanish flag vine Ipomoea lobata Mina lobatamore hummingbird favorites in my garden

  1. carol13 says:

    Hi – I’m in zone7. Would like to plant some Cardinal Climber. I thought about planting it at the base of an Arrowwood Viburnum I have in the middle of my yard (full sun all day). Will it harm the viburnum in any way?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Carol. The leaves are small which is good, but the vine is enthusiastic when it gets going, so keep an eye on it.

  2. Patrick says:

    Ten years ago I grew Cardinal Climber and it grew like a house on fire, swarms of battling Hummingbirds all around! The flowers were a dark red with a deep throat while the foliage was a solid leaf. Last year purchased some seed packets that said Cardinal Climber/Cypress Vine and the flowers were different than the Cardinal Climber from ten years earlier, also, found the foliage to be entirely different from the earlier Cardinal Climber. The later foliage was fern/feathery appearing unlike the solid leaf found on Cardinal Climber. Where might I find the solid leaf Cardinal Climber, is this a possible hybrid??? Thank you, Patrick

    1. Lisa J Ferguson says:

      Try Outside Pride.com.
      I ordered what I thought was going to be Cypress Vine but ended up being Cardinal Climber.

  3. maggie says:

    I grew cardinal climber for sales at farmers markets several years ago and everyone that bought it came back looking for it again the next year and raved about it. This one really is a keeper. the first year I grew it up the shepherd’s hook that holds the hummingbird feeder and the little birds seemed to prefer the flowers!

  4. Dj Vail says:

    I first became acquainted with cardinal climber at a friend’s home. She had it growing along the top edge of a retaining wall and it draped over and hung down the wall. It had a beautiful ivy-type feel to it.

  5. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I grow this vine every year … I did not realize there was a hybrid of an original – which is probably what I’ve been growing. I have to go out into the garden and look more closely now. Not only do I like the flowers as much as the hummingbirds, but love the textured foliage. This year the rabbits decided to dine on my Cardinal Climber (along with most everything else!) – but the vines are now wrapped and hopefully with more climbing will be out of their reach. I would love to try some seeds from Marilyn. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  6. Naseer says:

    Despite the cardinal climber being a hybrid, we’ve successfully saved seeds from it for 5 years without it reverting. It seems to be a very stable variety.

  7. Heather says:

    I think I’ve just discovered this growing in my mostly-veggie garden. No idea how it got there. Glad I didn’t pull it — it just didn’t “look” like a weed. Is it a perennial? If not, can I dig it up and overwinter it for next year?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Heather — it’s a self-sowing annual, and in warmer climates may (like all morning glory relatives) sow around more than you want, so pull unwanted seedlings before they get too big, leaving the ones you desire.

  8. mliss says:

    I found this post while trying to figure out what appeared to me to be the same flower on vines with different foliage. I grew the cypress vine several years ago and fell in love with it as much as the hummingbirds did. Since then I have only found the cardinal climber, but this year, to my surprise, a cypress vine appeared in my sweet peas!

  9. Hi Margaret,
    I’m not sure if you will see this, but I plan to grow more annual vines in my Colorado (zone 5) garden. I have both cardinal vine and spanish flag that have germinated on my heat mats. Do either of these two do well in a pot? I plan to try black eyed susan in a pot as described by your guest here.
    I am wondering if I could do the same with cardinal vine and spanish flag.
    What do you think?
    If you have the time that is…
    Thanks much.

    1. margaret says:

      I have grown them both in pots, Laura, but not small pots. The Spanish flag is a lusty grower and loaded with flowers when the time comes, so it needs a good-sized support system to hold them. So a very large pot with a tripod of bamboo of some other tall support in it.

  10. Jeffrey Cote says:

    I fed the groundhog under my deck for a summer with a couple of these vines. I thought it was just rabbits but when the new tender leaves and flower buds on the deck were eaten, I grew suspicious of a rabbit’s ability to get up on the deck. My suspicions were proven true one morning, looking out at my deck, eating my toast, as I spotted the groundhog walking up the stairs for his own breakfast. So yea. be aware of those little furry jerks.

  11. Cindy L. says:

    For these two years in a row. My humming bird vine has stopped blooming. I want to why ? I have three plants on the south of our deck. So I see the humming birds come. I just have to look out my kitchen window. One winter; I covered them. Then I uncovered them after the last frost. No flowers. This year I didn’t cover them & I still don’t have any flowers. How Can I get them to flowers again ?


    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know where you live, Cindy, but for me this is an annual, so it doesn’t survive the winter, covered or not. Which plant specifically are we talking about — one of the small-flowered red petunia relatives or ??? Often when a flowering plant doesn’t flower but is otherwise growing well it is from one of two or three causes: too much Nitrogen fertilizer, not enough sun, or improper pruning (doubtful it’s the last one with an annual climber).

  12. Eleanor says:

    I bought a few packs of what I thought were sweet pea seeds. Imagine my surprise when this amazing leaf grew like crazy then sprouted such a pretty red flower! I had no idea what it was, no one in my neighborhood had ever seen it. Thank you for providing me with the name and information, I sure hope it comes back next year, I live in Zone 6, and have never seen the seeds for sale here. Will the vine eventually go to seed?

    1. margaret says:

      Mine have gone to see here in Zone 5, assuming I left the vine up till the flowers past and it all dried after seeds were set…so don’t clean up too soon!

    1. margaret says:

      I get self-sown seedlings each year, but the plants develop later so they don’t bloom till quite late compared to ones I’d sow myself (or buy as seedlings that were started indoors).

  13. Lissa Powell says:

    I let my Cardinal climber go to seed last fall . I have been paying the price of that mistake all spring and summer pulling up little seedlings. Just when I think I have them all it rains and I have dozens more! Don’t let your cardinal climber go to seed!!!

    1. margaret says:

      I have grown it here for probably 20 years in 2 spots in the garden, and it does set some seed…but I have never had more than maybe 2 seedlings in any given year (Zone 5B, upstate NY). This self-sowing thing is true of all the morning glories I believe to come extent in different locations.

  14. Vicki says:

    It’s July 20th, I’m in zone 6, and my cardinal climber (with ferny leaves) is lush and beautiful…with no flowers. Is there still a possibility it will flower?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Vicki. Mine is just starting up this year in earnest so don’t give up…but also any plant can fail to flower if fed too much nitrogen or grown in too little shade (just in case one of those is the culprit — probably not).

  15. Way late to this party, but I grew this beautiful vine but it hasn’t bloomed and I am in the second week of September. (Mid-Atlantic region). Does it need to grow vertically to flower (like the highly invasive English ivy)? That said, I think I see some tiny buds forming, so maybe all is not lost.

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