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BOTANICAL NAME: Cochliasanthus caracalla (syn.Vigna caracalla)

COMMON NAME: Snail Vine

Family: FABACEAE

ORIGIN: Tropical South America and Central America

A WORD ABOUT COMMON NAMES. This particular plant is often confused with others because there are many that have been given the common name of SNAIL VINE. One in particular could cause you problems if you got them mixed up, Phaseolus giganteus, because unlike our friend above – Cochliasanthus caracalla – this one is incredibly fast growing and can become a terribly invasive weed within a very short period of time, particularly if planted close to a water source. Buyer beware! In addition, eminent writers of horticultural textbooks often confuse the two and put the wrong image with the description – so you could be forgiven for confusing the two yourself? (Stirling Macaboy, What Flower is That).

THIS PLANT originally got its name from the Greek – kokhlias – meaning snail shell or screw. The caracalla part is a corruption of the Portuguese caracol – meaning snail.

Phaseolus giganteus. Also called Snail Vine. YOU DO NOT WANT THIS ONE!

WHY SHOULD YOU PLANT ONE? For the flowers alone. I have the Cochliasanthus planted in my garden and it flowers from December through to February. It brings me abundant joy – not only because of the beauty of the flowers but because I can smell its heady fragrance from twenty metres away – a divine scent that is a cross between jasmine and gardenia.

GREENING THE VERTICAL SPACES in a garden is always a top idea too. It adds another dimension of beauty and interest. (I have put some further ideas for this in the link at the bottom of the page).

HOW DOES IT GROW? It is a twining climber and ideally suited for growing over an arbour so that you can get the benefit of the sprays of beautiful flowers that hang down in panicles. I use it for that purpose in my garden – to frame the entrance-way that leads down some steps from one section to another. It is also a focal point from the windows from the back part of my house.

IT IS A PERENNIAL CLIMBER that dies down completely in the winter just leaving a woody rope like stem that will bear the shoots of spring foliage come October. I have a delicate climbing rose that takes over ( sp.Edna Walling) when the snail vine is bare – so I usually always have something flowering over this arbour for most of the year.

LEAVES are soft green, trifoliate – in threes – and in a pattern like the ace of clubs. If you have ever grown beans you will immediately think they look like bean leaves – and you would be completely correct – they are all in the same large family of legumes.

FLOWERS are extremely unusual in their curled around snail-like shape. In fact there is only one plant in the Cochliasanthus genus – and this is it. Flowers start out as tight, white corkscrew buds that go through many shades of lavender, blue, mauve and purple, as they are opening – then fade to yellow and orange.

HOW TO KEEP IT HAPPY? Where a plant comes from will tell you most of what you need to know about its cultivation. This climber is from the subtropics of South America. It likes a hot sunny spot, humid summers and frost-free winters.

PLANT IT in rich composted soil; keep the water up to it; feed it a couple of times a year (I use Organic Life); and top up the mulch when needed.

IT’S A TROUBLE FREE PLANT TO GROW and I have never seen it suffer from any pests or diseases. The flowers are a magnet for bees and butterflies.

HOW TO PROPAGATE THIS CLIMBER? I have never seen this plant for sale in any nursery but I know that you can buy seeds online. Generally, it is one of those beloved plants shared between friends and neighbours. That’s where I got the seeds from for mine – my neighbour – who had it growing over a pergola that quite took my breath away the first time I saw it. I have never tried growing it from a cutting because the growth on mine is pretty green and sappy, but the experts say that you can.

IT HAS HARD ROUND SEEDS that are produced in these bean-like pods – the bees have been (bean) doing their work! The pod will turn from fleshy green to papery brown – this is the time to harvest the seeds. Germination rate is pretty good and I have given a lot away over the years – I often find opportunist seedlings popping up from fallen pods in my garden. I plant the seeds in a pot in springtime, after first soaking them overnight in warm water. They are ready to plant out when they have grown their second set of leaves.

This is the most beautiful bean in the world

Thomas Jefferson


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Climbing plants for the subtropics – greening vertical spaces

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