I Walk the Vine


Some people have pets. I have plants. True, they don’t come wagging their tails to me in the morning. But I now firmly believe that plants have observable behavior. Most fascinating for me are vines, like my mandevilla.

When I first glimpsed the mandevilla for sale at 14th Street Garden Center in Jersey City, all I saw was a tall, dark, and handsome plant with deep green leaves and trumpet-like pink flowers. But after I’d invested in plant, pot, and soil, I soon realized that this was a creature with character too.

I know most people think that flowers are as lively as, well, potted plants. But within a week, I was watching my mandevilla send tendrils out into the air, seeking a structure to coil around. Hour by hour, these probing tendrils seemed to shift positions, slowly rotating like a satellite array searching space for radio signals.

I soon began fretting that the delicate shoots had no trellis. But the shopkeeper at 14th Street Garden Center assured me I didn’t need one. “Just hang some string down the wall for it to climb,” she said, “or take the vines and wrap them around a pole. You don’t need to be gentle.” That’s when I learned how finicky my plant was—not just any old support would do. I had placed the mandevilla on the stoop outside my front door, adjacent to the railing holding a planter full of herbs. I tried at first to wrap the tendrils around the railing. Time and again, the tendrils unwound and by morning had curled themselves instead around the stems of the basil plants.

I reverted to Plan B—some bamboo stakes and string that appeared equally unsuccessful for a day or two. But then the vines appeared to signal their approval. When a tendril reached a point of contact—usually somewhere along the middle of its length—the tip would soon curl back toward the new object, as if bending its neck to look in the opposite direction. Pretty soon additional tendrils were wrapping around the string, too, reinforcing themselves like a braided rope. Even tendrils near the base of the plant that had previously probed the air in seemingly random fashion began reaching toward the strings above, as if heeding some internal communications system, twisting around each other as they wound their way skyward.

No wonder Organic Gardening magazine dubbed the mandevilla “the mailbox vine of the moment.” “The flowers are big enough to make an impression at the curb, even if the traffic is going by at 35 miles per hour,” as the article put it, “but the vines are well mannered and do not threaten to engulf the mail carrier.” So I’m evidently not the only one who ascribes character traits to my plants. The mandevilla is well mannered, indeed—and a strangely intriguing companion.

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