THE AKEBIA is an ordinary vine that for some reason is not ordinary enough for gardeners to take it for granted, and this may be good.
Usually gardeners ignore plants of exceptional distinction and beauty if they are common, or if anybody can grow them without trouble. Even the native dogwood fails to excite many gardeners who are used to seeing woodlands full of it. Another victim of familiarity is the common English ivy (the one most often grown is the rather large-leaf variation called the Irish ivy) and still another treasure commonly regarded as a weed is the Japanese fall-blooming clematis, which perfumes the air with almond and decks its green vine with thousands of small white stars around Labor Day.
In September the fruits of the akebia ripen and they are splendid. In bulk they are the size of pears, almost, if the vine has had its winter dressing of manure. They are like great fat sausages, violet in color on the outside, and they split open to reveal the white-kid lining and the mass of black seeds embedded in a cottony pulp.
Even without fruit the vine is pleasant enough. I grow mine up an eight-foot wooden post, to which green-plastic-covered wire netting is fixed. The vine twines and is fairly dense with five-leaflet leaves like little fan palms all along the stems. In early spring there are murrey-colored, or dull purple flowers like little saucers three-quarters of an inch wide, in clusters. There is a somewhat musty, somewhat sweet scent given off. Some books say they are scentless, and they are wrong.
Before the leaves of most trees have emerged from winter dormancy, the akebia puts out tender fragile greenery as exciting as new ferns, and before the leaves are full grown, the flowers appear. Because of the wretched slowness with which spring appears in Washington, it may be April before the akebia blooms. But in some years March.
A surprising amount of misinformation has been printed, even in such august places as the magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society, about akebia fruit.
All that is necessary is to take pollen from the flowers of one akebia plant and dust it lightly on staminate flowers of another akebia plant of a different clone.
In my case, I simply go down an alley near me and collect staminate flowers from a vine that sprawls into that alley, take it home and dust it on the female flowers of my plant. The male and female flowers are easily distinguished, since the male blooms are heavy with pollen and the larger, showier female flowers are sticky with nectar.
Sometimes, as in this past spring, I am in a hurry and cannot patiently pollinate each flower. I take the stamens with their pollen, swoop them up and down hastily over the flowers on my plant in 20 seconds for the eight-foot plant. Then I stick the staminate flowers I have pulled from the other plant (the one I found in an alley) in among the foliage of my plant, figuring the bees will do the rest. They always do.
By September the pole is almost solid with fruit, top to bottom, and each fruit seems larger than an orange except, as I say, the fruits are soft violet.
In England it does not fruit well. If it fruited there as it does here, it would be considered a marvelous plant.
It grows all the way up to Maine in American gardens (though it comes from Japan and China) and it is sufficiently tough that I was not surprised to see it in the alley a few blocks from my house. I bought my plant a few years ago from Carroll Gardens in Westminster, Md., but it grows perfectly well from cuttings or seeds if you have access to them.
Like many woody plants (pears and most apples and some peaches) it remains sterile unless it is pollinated by another clone, that is, another plant sprung from a different seed. If I made cuttings of my akebia and raised them to flowering size (two years) so that I had lots of akebia plants, they would not bear fruit, since the plants from cuttings would be genetically identical with my original plant. But if I raised new plants from seed, then my akebia would fruit since the other akebias would be different clones, all from different seeds.
It is simply easier for me to collect male flowers from the akebia down the alley than to give space to another akebia.
Over several years I have tried little experiments. I pollinated dozens of female flowers on my plant with pollen from male flowers on my plant and did not get a single fruit. Then one year I did not pollinate at all, and again got no fruit. But every year that I collect pollen from a different clone and set it among my own akebia flowers, the bees see to it that I get a heavy crop.
Ironwork is nowadays quite inferior to the beautiful old wrought iron of former times. Most of the houses of Washington have iron railings somewhere around them, often near the steps, and it is almost always clumsy, incompetent (esthetically incompetent) stuff. The akebia is splendid for winding around these graceless iron spindles. Contrariwise, it should never be allowed on beautiful ironwork, since it will obscure the workmanship.
It is, perhaps, a mark of our generation that hardly anything is of such good workmanship that it should remain exposed. Architects, you might think, would have done something -- there are billions of architects now, whereas formerly there were few, and the more architects there are the cruddier the details of buildings are, and I believe this is because most architects now practicing have no love for architecture and no aptitude for building -- to raise standards of simple things like iron railings, or brickwork around doors and windows.
My own house was built, I think, by a building contractor without an architect, and it was a cheap house in 1931, but he was apparently a man too stupid, or too serious, to do everything the most careless and slipshod way. Architects nowadays are so busy babbling about social design of urban areas and other matters they are rarely called upon to do anything about that they pay no attention to the things they are called on to do something about, such as doors, windows, ceilings and the like. All of which are clumsier now than in the past.
I fear I wander. Anyway, the akebia is a good vine for negating the work of the average architect, so you no longer have to look at his inept masonry, with mortar all over the bricks, which themselves are often chosen evidently for their ugliness of color, nor his ill-proportioned posts and columns and frames.
To drive around Washington is enough to become a sad man, architecturally speaking, when you see the houses we live in. How does it happen that houses of 200 years ago are rarely actively ugly, even when built by amateurs?
The answer is, of course, a general indifference in our day to Palladio and Wren, who understood building, and a sudden embrace of all sorts of non-architectural values, such as social dynamics, zub, zub, zub, and other nonsense that persuades builders the last thing they need to know anything about is how to build a graceful, practical, sound, well-proportioned dwelling. If, by any chance, the gardener happens to have a beautiful house, he should keep vines off it, but 99 percent of the houses of Washington fairly cry out for such saviors as the akebia. And plenty of it.