cardinal climber and its cousins, annual vines that are hummingbird favorites
IN 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.
The 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.
I 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.)