Plant of the Day – Purple Jade Vine – Mucuna cyclocarpa

Purple jade vine's huge flower clusters resemble a cluster of grapes.

Purple jade vine’s huge flower clusters resemble a cluster of grapes.

I love growing vines in the landscape whether they are climbing an arbor, covering a fence, or scrambling through a tree or sturdy shrub.  They add a touch of wildness in many cases but also add interest when other plants have finished their show or haven’t started yet.  It seems many gardeners are a bit afraid of vines, especially vigorous ones.  I often find myself reminding folks that it is OK for their plants to touch and a vine in a tree is only a problem when it grows out of scale.

A vine that is getting me pretty excited recently is Mucuna cyclocarpa, also known as purple jade vine or in China as min you ma teng.  As with so many other plants, I first encountered it at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens at Plant Delights Nursery where it was decorating a fence surrounding a staff vegetable garden.  It is a vigorous growing woody vine from relatively low elevations in southeast China which originally gave me little hope for its winter hardiness.  The foliage makes it easy for gardeners to place it in the bean (Fabaceae) family as the three-part leaves look much like common garden beans but are typically larger and the terminal leaflet has a cordate or heart-shaped base.

Mucuna is a fairly large genus with about 100 species of vines and shrubs found in the tropics.  As a general rule, the leaves are composed of 3 leaflets, the flowers are in panicles and are generally showy purple, red, orange, or green.  The bean pods often have wings along their margins which may help them to float in water as a dispersal mechanism.  Some species are used in medicines, especially M. pruriens which contains serotonin, L-dopa, and some hallucinogenic compounds.  Many species have hairs on their seed pods or stems which can cause an itching reaction.

Mucuna bennettii, a tropical vine, growing over shrubs and an arbor in Hawai'i.

Mucuna bennettii, a tropical vine, growing over shrubs and an arbor in Hawai’i. (photo J.C. Raulston)

While the foliage of M. cyclocarpa makes a lovely backdrop, the flowers of purple jade vine are what really excites.  Huge clusters the size of a grapefruit dangle from the stems.  The Flora of China says it flowers on old wood, but my experience says otherwise.  The flower clusters are composed of dozens of deep, dusky purple blossoms with a texture like thick plastic.  The flowers can be somewhat obscured by the foliage but when grown on a horizontal structure like the top of an arbor, the clusters will dangle like grape bunches.  Bean pods are formed after the flowers if they are pollinated, so far we have not had much seed set.  Pods are bumpy with roundish seeds and are initially covered with a sparse layer of reddish hairs.

The flower clusters of purple jade vine are quite large with thick-textured blossoms.

The flower clusters of purple jade vine are quite large with thick-textured blossoms.

While purple jade vine grows as a large woody vine in sub-tropical climates, it will usually die to the ground in a colder area but spring back in summer with a vengeance.  In fact, our plant went in the ground in late summer of 2012 and by mid-summer of 2014 has grown to cover one side of a shade structure easily 12′ wide by 10′ tall and looks likely to double that size if left un-pruned.  It doesn’t seem to have any problem climbing on its own but may need some help if it is to be grown up a single post.  Full sun to light shade.  Ours is growing in a very rich, light soil, we have not experimented with it on heavier clay soils.

Follow me at @jcramark because life is too short for boring plants.

Check out all the happenings, see more images, and learn more at the JC Raulston Arboretum where we are Planting a Better World.

Bold foliage makes a great backdrop to Mucuna cyclocarpa.

Bold foliage makes a great backdrop to Mucuna cyclocarpa.

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