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. LYnn says:

    I bought three in a patina color a couple of years ago. They are different sizes and I vine my veggie on them.. Much prettier than the convention fences and cages

  2. I’ve planted cardinal climber these past two years. Last year’s heat about did in the plants all together. I didn’t get blooms until fall and they weren’t very showy. This year, I’m keeping water to them better but they just won’t bloom. Is it the heat? We’ve been over 100 since late June almost every day with 110 some days. I put them in my “red bed.” All plants in there bloom red. It’s still a work in progress as I add perennials each year. I was really hoping the cardinal climber would self see there for me but I may have to pass on it for my garden. Yours looks great!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Gardener on Sherlock Street. If you started from seed it will of course take longer — I have had direct-sown ones wait till August to start blooming. Lately I’ve been buying or starting plants so they are already awake and up 8 or 10 inches by the time I transplant them in mid- or late May into the garden.

  3. Thank you for the info. I didn’t realize it needed so long to start blooming. I will have to try to get them going earlier next year. In the mean time, The green vines look nice. Love those lacy leaves. Thanks. Have a great week!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Two Steps From Home and thank you for your visit from so far away! The cardinal climbers are just starting so the hummingbirds and I hope for many more of them this summer. Hope to see you again.

  4. Juniper gardener says:

    Margaret, hello from Baltimore! This year, we are trying these lovelies on some small conifers in various spots–we think it will be cool when the deer-chewed chamaecyparis obtusa starts sprouting the red blooms. Also on japanese white pine, and cephalotaxus harringtonia. I’ll let you know how it works out!

  5. Maggie says:

    Hi Margaret. I just discovered this vine in May; found it at a local nursery. It took a little bit of coaxing, and for the longest time I had only one fine vine, but in the past several weeks it has really taken off. However, I’m not seeing lots of blooms, just vines and foliage. Hopefully I’ll see more flowers soon. I was tickled to see your post!

  6. martko says:

    Hi Margaret. I was thinking about a good climber and viola!! you have this post. You are a mind reader. Where do you keep that crystal ball of yours?? Love your trellis too. Did you have someone make that or did you buy it somewhere? It is gorgeous. Take care and stay cool!

  7. Suzanne says:

    Mine self sow every summer in a bed where heat loving annuals thrive. I’ve been pulling some out to eliminate the tangles they create!

  8. gayle says:

    Hello Margaret – funny about timing – I just came in from my morning walk around my garden and was excited to see a few blooms on my cypress vines. First year that I have tried them – I have them climbing up a bamboo teepee. And then I sit down to my computer and see your blog!!

    Is the cypress vine as invasive as morning glories? I have had a battle getting morning glories out of my gardens – I did not plant them – but once they got here they did not want to leave. Made me feel like I was down south dealing with kudzu!!

    So I soooo hope cypress vine is not going to be a mistake …..

    zone 7

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Gayle. In some warmer zones it does self-sow, but only if you let the seedpods fully ripen of course and disperse (so when you clean up will depend on how many you have that self-sow, if it finds your climate favorable). In many areas it does not self-sow — but I don’t think there is a precise map!

      Suzanne (who also commented here today) says they do self-sow for her — but I don’t know her location.

  9. gayle says:

    Yikes! If it self sows for Suzanne in NY I better watch out!!

    Suzanne – have they gotten invasive like morning glories?

  10. Suzanne says:

    Gayle, luckily these babies are somewhat contained in a raised bed in my courtyard. I do have Morning Glories that are weedlike in other gardens but the Cardinal Vine, a captive in a bed surrounded by the stone terrace, only sows itself there. If let be, it’s like a bowl of ferny spaghetti.

  11. gayle says:

    Hi Suzanne- thanks for the reply.

    And I have the Cypress vine …. maybe/hopefully not as strong a self sower as the Cardinal vine …. time will tell!

    Thanks! Gayle

  12. Teresa says:

    My family is very sensitive about (vocally opposed, you might say…especially my 16 YO potential biology major) growing things that aren’t native to our area, but if I can convince them, I’d love to try the cardinal climber since I really don’t like using hummingbird feeders and having to mix up sugar solutions for them.

  13. Beverly says:

    I have grown both the Cardinal Climber and the Cypress Vine. Both germinated very quickly for me using an APS tray with water-wicking felt draped into the lower level reservoir.

    In Zone 6 eastern PA, Cypress Vines self-sow to a fault, rivaling morning glories, BUT they are so petite and delicate with their filigree foliage that ripping out the over-abundance has been no trouble. Cypress Vines also have many more flowers on them than the Cardinal Climber Vines. I get hummingbirds visiting regularly, coming to Red Lobelia, Tall Purple Verbena (bonariensis), Red Cannas and most of all, the Cypress Vines. What a pleasure to stand quietly and admire the tiny little birds at work.

    I collect the dried seeds in a wide bucket when the weather cools down and vines are tan and dry. I soak seeds for a few hours before growing them in spring, but do not scarify. Cardinal Climber seeds are larger than Cypress Vine seeds, both being dark brown and tear-drop shaped.

    My source for Cardinal Climber was a colleague at my elementary school who was doing a science project with her special ed. students. The Cypress Vine seeds came from ETSY.com a few years ago.

    I shared seeds of both with a neighbor who uses the vines all around the base of the deck, encouraging tendrils to twine up and around posts and envelope the whole sitting area with a beautiful ringlet of curvy foliage and red trumpets, really something to see.

    If you want more RED, I would recommend Cypress Vines. If you are concerned with too much self sowing the following year, go for the Cardinal Climbers.

  14. Regina Southern says:

    I picked up a cardinal pkg and self sowed in May. I I have it climbing and weaving about 6ft tall on 2 trellis. I am so proud. I live in Oklahoma and the weather has cooperated so far. I hope our 100’s don’t hurt it.
    I water every other day. I also have purple salvia ,white and Red Salvia. I remember as a youngster how the Hummingbirds loved it. My Parents were quite the Gardeners..How I long for the Good ole Days.
    I Love your site
    Regina Southern

  15. “because much of the nursery trade seems to have little regard for keeping things straight”
    Slightly off topic but struck a nerve.. I have been buying seeds for morning glory heavenly blue and flying saucers (paying more and more each season)and what blooms is the dark purple ! Drives me nuts.hank for your wonderful posts, most enjoyable.
    Happy Summer

  16. Lorie says:

    Where were you this spring when I was “salvia choosing” for the hummers? :) Always had the hummer favorite Lady in Red (cheap/reliable) but switched to Black and Blue. I guess it’s back to red. Tried the lime leaved ones for the first time; no blooms in this drought so I pitched them…patience IS a virtue. So envied your frog population and am thrilled to have, in this drought, a couple of big fat American toads. Drip irrigation and mulch must make for a happy home. Your newsletter is SO appreciated.

  17. Lorie says:

    and a P.S. I volunteer at our Botanical Garden. One year (ONE) they put cypress vine and hyacinth beans in the same beds in the Victorian Garden. Quite impressive that year on teepees. Volunteers spent the next several seasons digging out those cypress vines; they took on a life of their own. Maybe it was the rich soil; maybe cypress vines need wild and free landscapes.

  18. Robin says:

    Cardinal Climber grows wild at my house here in South Carolina!! I think I am lucky when it starts to come up everywhere in July!!

  19. Julie says:

    I grow cardinals in FL from the seeds I got from my sister in IL. We recently bought a home and short version is that we discovered a white cardinal climber growing in our hedge. Is white common? Any information you have on the white ones would be very much appreciated as I can’t seem to find specifics searching online. Cheers! Julie

  20. Julie says:

    Thank you Margaret! Looking at the link you sent it appears that the Cypress Vine flower looks more like a star and the cardinal climber is solid between the “points of the star”…(Hope that make sense) Based on that I guess I have grown true Cardinal Climbers from seed and have a wild Cypress Vine growing in our hedge…very cool! Thank you so much for sharing your expertise!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.