We will start this visit with a spectacular plant, known as ‘Golden chalice vine' or ‘Cup of Gold' the Solandra maxima (syn. S.grandiflora and S.nitida) is a serious one, a woody climber which may reach 12 meters (40 feet) long. It belongs to the Solanaceae family just like your homegrown tomato or potato; as with those plants, it originates from Latin America, Mexico to Peru and Venezuela. The genus Solandra itself comprises some 10 species, all shrubs or woody climbers and all from Latin America. Not only does it grow into a huge specimen but the flowers have a matching size of 25 to 30 cm (10 to 12 inches) long, forming the shape of a cup as implied by its vernacular name. They are yellow with five brown-red lines inside and will gradually turn to gold color with the added bonus of producing a sweet perfume mimicking coconut. Leaves are oblong and shiny green on the upper side, velvety on the underside. It is easily propagated by cuttings of hardwood. It is quite strong and becomes heavy so beware where you plant it!
Now a much more discreet plant that will easily be passed by unless you are a local or a cook yourself...Indeed, Sechium edule can be rather unobtrusive with its dull green leaves, minute yellowish flowers and green fruits. But the ‘chouchou' as called on Reunion, ‘christophine' or ‘chayotte' in the West Indies, ‘vegetable pear', ‘custard marrow' and even ‘mirliton' in Louisiana is not to be neglected! As explained in a previous culinary article the leaves and end shoots are cooked and eaten as ‘brèdes' while the fruit itself can be prepared in many ways, from basic steam cook to more elaborate gratins. The tuberous roots themselves are sold on street market and used pretty much like potatoes. A member of the Cucurbitaceae family like the cucumber or water melon, it comes from Central American mountains and was enjoyed by the Aztecs. Nowadays grown in many tropical locations it has run wild in Reunion, especially in the Cirque de Salazie which is copiously watered and where it covers whole stretches of lands and fallows. Actually it is such a part of life in Salazie that a "Miss Chouchou" is elected every year. It is easy to grow and may very well cover your house as the stem can reach 12 meters (40 feet) long, just like the Cup of Gold--though it will never become woody.
Let us go back to some more serious discussion now. In this semi-shaded spot, climbing on a tree trunk by means of aerial roots is an economically and culturally important species, known all over the world and always a synonym of sweet exoticism. This orchid comes from Mexico (what plant does NOT come from Mexico?) but its product is today in every single kitchen, Vanilla fragrans is an international star! Now it happens that its foremost growing zone is the very area where I have been living for the last 20 years: Reunion Island, Madagascar and the Comoros archipelago. On Reunion Island the first vanilla cuttings were brought from French Guyana in 1819 when the Governor of Reunion had decided to introduce the plant species to be grown there. In 1822 cuttings from Mexico were brought and the first serious planting started. But alas none of the plants would produce pods (yes, vanilla fruits are called pods) even if they were healthy enough and flowered profusely. So what was missing? Did the plant long for the mariachi bands or the smell of tortillas? Of course not, it just needed an insect, a small bee of the genus Melipona (in the Apidae family) which is the main pollinator for vanilla, with the help of hummingbirds. So Mexican bees were imported but did not really enjoyed the place and failed to do the job. And it was a black slave by the name of Edmond Albius which discovered how to pollinate artificially the flowers and allow the plant to produce those wonderful pods. We will come back more at length on vanilla and its growing in a further article as it definitely deserves one.
After a climbing orchid why not a climbing cactus? Of course this is not what will come directly to mind when one thinks of vines but the strength of flora resides in its amazing diversity. Guess where this guy comes from? Yes, again. Hylocereus undatus and H. purpusii are Mexican but they can be found in many places and the fruit, sold under the name ‘dragon's fruit' is a common item on streets of Viet-Nam and Thailand. On Reunion it is known under its Spanish name of ‘pitaya' or ‘pitahaya' and enjoyed out of hand as well as turned into a variety of fruit salads, juices and sorbets to which it gives an incredible bright purple color. This plant is also called ‘queen of the night' as it blooms only when the sun is gone, it is a huge white flower with a distinctive scent. In its place of origin it fruits readily as there are many natural pollinators but on Reunion it has to be hand-pollinated and even cross-pollinated with other species or different clones, it will then produce a massive fruit up to 700g. The stems are triangular, green, and will grow between 6 and 12 meters (18 to 36 feet) long, using aerial roots to cling to rocks. It is easily propagated by seeds and even more easily by cuttings, it has even spread in some ravines taking the advantage of being broken in pieces by cyclones, each piece giving birth to a new plant. It will require a strong prop as it can get real heavy, telephone poles are sometimes used by commercial growers, cut to a manageable length of course...
Now for a geographical change let us consider this marvel coming from New Guinea, a most stunning liana with very impressive massive bright red flowering. Mucuna bennetti, the ‘New Guinea creeper', ‘mucuna vine' or ‘red jade vine' is much sought after and cherished by the enthusiasts who are able to grow it. The Mucuna genus includes around one hundred species, all woody climbers in the Papilionaceae sub-family. Mucuna bennetti is quite demanding in term of space as it may grow to 30 meters (100 feet) long--larger than the size of your typical glass house. The leaves are trifoliate and the flowers, ah, the flowers! They display a large keel enclosed by the wings and a short standard, they come in long pendulous racemes which can reach 30 cm (1 foot) long, much resembling the jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) but in a different color, bright red to orange. The plant will thrive in tropical climate with a dry season, on rich loose soils, in full sun. Seedlings may show a tendency to shy flowering so vegetative propagation is best though it is very difficult through cuttings (less than 10 percent success, even in a special propagating glass house) but air layering is more reliable.
And at last for the dessert we will come back in the garden and sit under the bower to savour one of my favorite fruits, the ‘barbadine'. This delicious big thing is the size of football (say about one foot long) with a soft green skin ripening yellow. On opening it reveals a thick white rind protecting the inner flesh. This one is pale orange and has a most perfumed and delicate taste, much less acidic than other passion fruits. Yes, this is the fruit of Passiflora quadrangularis (syn. P.macrocarpa, P.tetragona) which grows on the bower over your head. This one species brings us back to Central America and the West Indies, the ‘giant granadilla' deserves its nickname, it does produce the biggest of all passion fruits, has very large flowers and its stems can easily reach 15 meters (50 foot) and has been recorded in Java to grow up to 45 meters (150 feet)! This stem has four distinct angles hence the species name, leaves are entire and ovate. Flowers are pendulous, deep red, purple or violet and white with a large corona on five ranks. As for most passionflowers it will do better in loose to sandy soil and though it may tolerate temperatures down to 10°C (50°F) it does have tropical requirements. It has been crossed with various other species to give birth to nice hybrids such as P.x allardii, P.x decaisneana and P.x buonapartea.
I hope you enjoyed this little tour and will now start growing all sorts of vines, climbers and lianas! They need some tending but are really fun and grow fast, even producing marvelous fruits for the sweet tooth.