Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture

Campsis grandiflora - Chinese Trumpet Creeper

When its at its best, Chinese trumpet creeper is a showcase drop-dead, absolutely gorgeous vine, the perfect plant for that special full sun spot. Positioned so the backdrop is a dark evergreen, the plant literally erupts into a carpet of three-inch reddishorange flowers tinged with yellow and salmon hues. On a post, this bright petunia-on-a-stick will shock and awe the most jaded of gardeners. At the SFA Mast Arboretum, flowering rolls in on a surge in early summer. The show lasts a month, and then the vine casually throws a few flowers off and on for the rest of the year, depending on plant health.

Chinese trumpet creeper has an American counterpart, Campsis radicans, which sports smaller more tubular flowers, generally orange to dark orange with none of the flair of the Chinese cousin. American trumpet creeper is aggressive, a very fast grower, and can easily generate a root suckering problem in the landscape. Let’s face it; it can be a beast. The cross of C. radicans and C. grandiflora produces Campsis X tagliabuana, most often represented in the nursery industry by the variety ‘Mme Galen’. The cross is an evident mix of the two: a larger showier bloom than the American species, but not quite as large as C. grandiflora.

Most interesting, is that the cross is way too often confused with the Chinese species. In fact, a careful inspection of Campsis grandiflora images obtained via any internet search proves with little that there’s a problem of recognition in the Campsis crowd. The simplest way to separate the two species and the cross is a careful look at the calyx. The Chinese trumpet creeper features a greenish calyx with long pointed lobes. The American trumpet creeper enjoys a darker calyx with shorter lobes that are not pointed. The cross lies in between.

Greg Grant, PNPC research associate in the garden world of this university, and I have enjoyed many conversations on just why that’s so, and why there are no cultivars of the Chinese. While there are Chinese trumpet cultivars or forms reported, there are certainly not the numbers found with the American trumpet creeper, C. radicans. While Larry Hatch lists over thirty cultivars of C. radicans, there may be some duplicity in the list [need replacement link for]. When seed from Chinese trumpet creeper is sowed, the resultant plants are always the cross, which may indicate that Chinese trumpet creeper is self-sterile, or at least the version floating around in the USA is such. Whether this is the result of dichogamy (pollen shed at a time when the stigma is not receptive), or some other reason remains undetermined. We need seedling C. grandifloras from seed collected in China to widen the degree of diversity. I have been lucky enough to see the vine used in China, where it can be found in public gardens and in the landscapes adorning every kind of business one might envision. Catching it in peak bloom near Ningbo, China, at a hotel garden was a special treat. While reported “in the wild” in Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hebei, Shandong, and Shanxi provinces, the Chinese trumpet creeper is also in cultivation in Taiwan, Korea and Japan and can be found in gardens around the world. In fact, the clone ‘morning calm’ introduced by JC Raulston in the mid-1980s came from root sprouts of a vine in Korea – and it’s identical to the plants in cultivation in Florida and Texas, both with much longer histories in the USA.

The plant is not without problems. Propagation can be problematic. The species roots easily from juvenile wood and grows vigorously at that stage. However, nurserymen report that it often takes years to bring the vine into flowering – it’s difficult to time for a sale. Cuttings taken from adult wood are more problematic, often forming a callus ball and failing to successfully generate a root system. Finally, my own observation of five or six vines in east Texas and Louisiana is that the species often settles into a decline. Our twenty year old specimen is now history. While it flowered and grew, it eventually settled into a few years of dieback and a year ago it said goodbye. I’m not exactly sure why. Until the facts are sorted out, gardeners shouldn’t hesitate to plant Chinese trumpet creeper. After all, it’s certainly the showiest of the genus, and nowhere near as rampant and aggressive as its American cousin.

Dr. David Creech, Regents Professor, Professor Emeritus, and Director, SFA Mast Arboretum