Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pampering Perennials: Historic Snail Flower.

It's cold. My toes are cold, my nose is cold. Soon, the greenhouses will serve a dual purpose of germinating seeds and sheltering my favorite tender perennials. Although our zone (7b) is typically safe from the first frost until Halloween, my gardener's intuition tells me to be prepared. Today, as I waited for Mikey's school bus, the steel grey clouds looked ominously like snow clouds.


I know that's absurd, as I shivered in the 55 degrees. Still, as a former northern girl, I know snow clouds.

And these looked just like them.

Several weather sources are predicting cold, snowy days for the Southeast—which I love. I miss snow. Now, though, it's time to think about finishing the last plantings of the season, as well as preparing the garden for the approaching cold.

Most of our tender perennials planted in the landscape receive a good layer of mulch or a thick blanket of straw, in the case of our banana trees. But some of our potted perennial favorites earn sacred space in the greenhouses.

One of those perennials is my lovely snail flower, Vigna caracalla.

Grown as a tender perennial in the south and an annual in the north, snail flower is a quiet vine early in the season, producing lush foliage for several months prior to bloom. But when those blooms appear—oh my.

Originally discovered growing in Caracas, Venezuela, snail flower is an heirloom variety with star power. Often noted for growing in Thomas Jefferson's gardens at Monticello, this historic plant intertwines history with botanical art. Spiraling purple and lavender flowers highlighted with cream and a touch of yellow smell as beautiful as they look.

The vines reach up to 20 feet in warm climates, making them an excellent choice for trellises, mailboxes, or fences. Although they bloom most prolifically in sun, I've found that partial shade still produces stunning blooms.

Snail flower is one of the first heirloom flowers I propagated from seed. While many sources caution that it's difficult to germinate, I've found the plants very easy to grow. The most difficult aspect of growing snail flowers from seed is the price: $1 per seed at Seed Savers Exchange, due to the challenge of securing viable seed. The plant blooms the first year, but the second years' blooms are heart-stopping.

Soon, the greenhouse will fill with overwintering perennials and trays of baby perennials grown from seed. Soon, we'll need to determine how to fit a 120 pound propane tank into a Prius. Obviously, I forgot to consider heating the greenhouse when trading in the minivan. Soon, as October's temperatures drop, seed catalogs will arrive, and I'll begin making lists for Garden Delights.

Until then, though, I'm going to enjoy the last garden blooms and prepare the winter homes for the perennials. Poor, cold plants.

Do you overwinter any of your favorite plants?

XO ~



  1. Hi Julie, I was tickled to see your snail vine, as I have one nestled safely in the greenhouse/sunroom right now. Seed grown, it only began blooming after I brought it inside and immediately dropped all the leaves, too. Do you have any advice for helping it see a second year?

    1. Frances, my snail vine also drops many of the leaves in the greenhouse, but it regenerates nicely as spring approaches. New leaves produce on the existing vines, so don't cut back too far if you choose to give it a trim. It's not a beautiful plant during the chilly months, even in the greenhouse, but it will be lovely again in spring.

  2. The snail flowers are just lovely and have such a beautiful perfume. My brother had two plants growing over a trellis in his last home. One was a little more purple, but the other had a better scent.

    1. Marisa, it's interesting--I think the industry can't decide which name belongs to which vine. There are many discrepanices with this plant: some call it snail vine, snail flower, or corkscrew vine. One is fragrant, one is not. One is more purple, one is lighter. My seed source, which I consider very reputable, sells snail flower vine, which is the darker purple with fragrance. It sounds like your brother may have grown one of each variety. Regardless--they're beautiful!

  3. How beautiful! definitely worth greenhouse space. I'll be working on moving my collection of tropicals indoors in the next two days. This is the time of year when I ask myself why, oh why do I have so many? LOL

    1. Deanne, isn't it the truth? Plus, because the greenhouses are used for my little heirloom nursery business, a plant has to be very worthy to make it inside! Not only does it take up precious space, but I have to clean it very thoroughly with Neem oil so I'm not introducing any pests into the greenhouse. Good luck moving your babies into their winter home!

  4. My snail vine is blooming now--- love the fragrance. I hope to be able to save a seed or two. Mine is in the ground, so not sure if it will come back next year. thanks!!!
    I overwinter my Epiphyllum oxypetalum. I keep it in the garage. Water it once a month.

    1. Janet, if you put a good layer of mulch over your snail vine, it should overwinter well. I have snail vines around our mail box, and they did fine. Seed saving with these plants is tricky--I've only found one seed in all the time I've grown them.