What writer doesn’t love finding an email in the inbox with the words “article idea” in the subject line?
Of course, it depends on the source, but when the idea is from a trusted friend with a great eye for beauty, it presents an intriguing prospect.
Recently, the designer and color expert Louis Aubert took a moment to write me such a message. Although I expected a tip on a fabulous house or a dazzling color combination, it was instead an idea for a garden story … of sorts.
This is how the email began: “How about an article on the gorgeous yellow blooms of the cat’s claw vine as a harbinger of spring?”
Hold on a minute. He wouldn’t be praising that indomitable vine that may be the most unwanted plant (or weed) citywide, the one that grows rampantly nearly year round? He doesn’t mean the vine with hook-like projections that it uses to attach to walls, to trees, and to fences, does he? Why, I have seen brave crape myrtles smothered by that monster!
Oh yes, that was indeed the vine Louis wrote to me about. A genius when it comes to helping owners choose colors for their homes and business, Louis is also a top-tier interior designer who has worked on many fine houses and hotels in New Orleans and beyond. So when Louis says something is interesting, I listen.
“There is a mass of it in bloom draped over the rail of the Palmetto overpass as you drive toward Metairie from Carrollton,” he wrote. “Next to this, the yellow blossoms hang in a tall pine tree and just a few blocks ahead, the vine is blooming in an old oak on the back corner of Longue Vue.” To hear Louis tell the story, the vine induces rapture.
I do know what he means about the pretty golden flowers, and I admit to having secretly admired them over the years.
That is, when I wasn’t struggling to dig up the large underground tubers from which the vines grow or to detach one from my weatherboards. They seem to like to mingle with my wisteria vine, disguising themselves until I realize they are strangling it.
Like many plants, cat’s claw blooms just once a year. Because of the way the vine climbs over houses and sheds and then tumbles from the roof, the swaying mass of vines and yellow trumpet-like blossoms can, indeed, be stunning. This spring’s display is on its way out and won’t return until 2017.
“You can spot it in many trees at this time of year because of the blossoms. Because it is green all year, you don’t really notice it until the yellow blossoms appear,” Louis reminded me. “You see the vines in some rather grand locations, as well as on any number of abandoned properties around town.”
For Louis, cat’s claw is the great social equalizer.
I am not surprised when I research cat’s claw to learn that it is native to the tropical jungles of South America and Central America. Nor was it news that it can grow up to 100 feet long (a low-ball figure, based on what I’ve seen around New Orleans).
But I am astonished to learn that in cooler climates (where it is not quite as vigorous), the plants are cultivated as ornamentals. About 90 percent of the stories I read online about cat’s claw talk not about how to grow it but instead about how to kill it — forever. That’s how much most gardeners despise the invasive vine.
Except for Louis. He is not suggesting that we all plant cat’s claw in our yards and watch it take over. Instead, because it is here already and so hard to eradicate, he thinks we’d better find a way to appreciate its positive attributes. A romantic, Louis is, nonetheless, practical.
“I looked up at my neighbor’s house the other day and saw some cat’s claw with yellow blossoms coming out of the peak of the gable. The house is two stories tall, and the cat’s claw had worked its way up inside the wall and finally found a way to get to the sun,” he said.
“Of course, I cut it down to the ground so it wouldn’t do any damage to the house.”
Such is the story of cat’s claw, a ubiquitous, maddening vine that drives most gardeners to distraction but which, every spring, contributes glorious cascades of yellow flowers to our cityscape. When I asked Louis where I could go to see the vines that inspired him, he said, “Look up; they won’t be hard to find.”