Plant Profile: Akebia QuinataMarch 25, 2016
One of our favorite vines for PacNW gardens is Akebia quinata, also commonly known as the chocolate vine or vanilla vine. This beautiful, hardy plant won’t serve up your favorite ice cream flavors, but does provide solutions to a number of garden challenges. Plus, when it blooms, it fills the garden with tasty scents — more like nutmeg than chocolate or vanilla to our olfactory senses, but hey, that’s sweet too! And, it might just offer up some sugary-sweet fruit as well.
This plant is a great climber for sunny or shady spots. Not only will it tolerate shade, but it will bloom beautifully in even darker garden corners. For your darkest nooks, Akebia ‘Alba’ might be your better choice as the lemony-white blooms will help brighten things up.
This vine is (mostly) evergreen in the PacNW. If you’re relying on it for privacy, be forewarned that cold snaps can defoliate it — partially or even completely — in winter. And, if the cold snap hits in late winter/early spring, it may put a damper on the blooms that break forth as early as February. But, it’s tough to keep a good vine down! Even if the cold knocks it back, it’s unlikely an established plant will completely die off. Most just lose a few buds and bounce back fast.
Akebia climbs by twining, so except for training, you probably won’t need to tie it to your climbing structure. Those succulent, winding stems will later take a woody form that fattens up into stiff, hard stems and trunks — like a shrub or tree. And, they will wrap around themselves and anything else they encounter, so plan to prune it regularly, and be on the lookout for tendrils making their way into nearby trees.
Cut those babies out while they’re young and small, or you’ll be in for a tough job with a saw. If vines form into dense thickets when interior stems are overgrown by new growth, songbirds may use those spots for cover or nesting locations. Larger birds, like crows, may harvest older dead wood to use in their nests.
And, while it won’t taste like a vanilla shake or chocolate cake, Akebia does sometimes produce an edible fruit. Fruit is formed on the female flowers of the purple Akebia quinata. The white Akebia, however, is more likely to be sterile. So, if eating sugary-sweet, gelatinous fruit wrapped in a casing reminiscent of a hard sunglasses case isn’t your thing, plant Akebia quinata ‘Alba’ instead of the purple. That being said, in the decade we’ve grown Akebia, our voracious vine has only produced fruit once, and the squirrels ate most of it.