A revered climbing vine, yet scarcely offered in cultivation, Lapageria rosea deserves to grow in everyone’s temperate garden. Upheld for the beauty its deeply red lily-shaped flowers offer as ornament to the rain forests of its native Chile, it is honored there as the national flower. Its three to four inch flowers, borne from summer to early winter, possess a distinctive thick waxy cuticle, and hang like red to rose bells from the upper leaf axils. Variants with denser waxier texture are sought for their esteemed quality. As an evergreen climber with deep green leathery leaves on wiry vines that twine up to 15 feet in cultivation, longer yet in the wild, it twines vertically at first, and then takes on a horizontal pattern. It grows upwards, its free end arching, and circling, as John Smith of Kew Gardens, in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine points out, in a clockwise direction in its search for support. A terrestrial plant in origin, the Lapageria evolved into a woody climber in its search for sunlight deep in its native forests, wrote Smith. Flowers flare into a trumpet shape of six tepals, three inner and three outer. While the sole species of this genus, member of the Philesiaceae family, is a saturated rose red , Lapagerias range in color from white, cream, blush, pinks, to the speckled picotees.
While few areas of the world mimic the temperate maritime weather of its native soil so as to support this plant’s needs, our coastal California climate does. Situated geographically along the western coast of South America between 30 and 45 degrees of latitude, its native conditions to some degree mirror our northern hemisphere locale, situated at similar latitude, with seasons reversed. The cold current that runs from Antarctica up the South American coast north to Chile finds its companion here along our California coast. Marked by warm, dry summers moderated along the coast by fog spill-off from cold ocean currents traveling south, the Chilean Bellflower, or ‘Copihue’, thrives in the Bay Area home garden where it can readily be grown out of doors. Known to be hardy to zone 9, with reports of success in zone 8 under protected conditions, those outside of these zones may try their hand at growing it under glass.
Copihue, its Araucan common name, or the Chilean Bellflower carries with it a romantic history, that parallels Shakespeare’s 1594 English-speaking version of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Legend has it that two offspring, Copih and Hues of sparring Araucan pehuenches and mapuche tribes, met and fell in love. With their families mortal enemies, the forest provided them shelter to meet in secret. One day embracing by a lagoon, their families discovered them. Nahuel, head of the mapuche tribe and Princess Hues’ father, enraged at what he saw, threw his lance and penetrated Copih’s heart. With his death, Prince Copih sank into the lagoon waters. Copiniel, head of the pehuenches tribe and Copih’s father, likewise angered at the children’s involvement, slew the princess who upon death joined her lover in the lagoon. The tribal families mourned their children’s death. After the passing of a year, the two tribes met back at the lagoon to remember them. They arrived at night, and slept along the lagoon’s edge. At dawn, an event unfolded. Two intercrossed lances rose from the lagoon bottom, a creeping vine (enredadera) connected them, from which hung beautiful blood red and milky white flowers. The enemy tribes recognized the enormity of this occurrence, and reconciled. To commemorate the union of their offspring, Copih and Hues, they named the flower ‘copihue’.
Its Latinate, botanical name, Lapageria likewise sheds light on this vine. Lapageria derives from Lapagerie, the maiden name of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. Her ardent support for plant life led her to create Malmaison garden, near Paris, where she housed a remarkable collection of exotic plant material. Botanists honored her service to horticulture, by bestowing this plant her name.
As a sturdy, twining vine, Lapageria is versatile. In its native Valdivian temperate rain forests, a narrow coastal strip that runs between the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the southern Andes Mountains to the east, at roughly 34-41 degrees latitude, it creeps among broadleaf and mixed forest understory shrubs, and high into trees such as Guevina avellana and Persealingue, part of the Valdivian flora. It is most commonly found from the Maule River to Lake Llanquilhue. For the home garden, its uses are many. It can be trained to climb up a tree, arbor, pillar or espalier on a garden wall.
Cultivation & Cultural Practices:
Lapageria rosea thrives in mildly acidic, well-drained conditions favorable to fellow understory plants: azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. This plant does best with its base well protected in shade, while its tips grow through surrounding shrubs and trees, into sunlight. Lapageria require warm, temperate growing conditions, with reliable rainfall. Natural settings include coastal shaded slopes in steep ravines where moist air provides humidity, and alongside bodies of water. Lapageria prefer mildly acidic soil with good drainage. To achieve this, garden soil can me amended with equal parts of peat moss, ¼ inch grade bark chips, leaf mold provide and garden soil for planting in the ground. Container culture differs only slightly with the additional part of perlite. The San Francisco Bay Area and coastal California approximate coastal Chile growing conditions, and provide fine climatic conditions for growing this subtropical plant in the U.S.
Lapageria are commonly grown from seed, cutting or layering. For seed, pre-soak for three days in warm water, changing water often, 3-5 times per day. Then stratify for one to three months at 4 C. Stored seed germinates within one to three months. Once seed ripens in September to October, sow two to three seeds per pot in humus-rich well draining soil in a heated setting. Remove fruit, which may contain germination inhibitors, before sowing seed. Stratify stored seeds typically germinate in six weeks at 20 C.
Layering: Layer either in spring before new growth begins or in autumn in a box, under 1 1/2 to 2 inches of soil, as Elbert Reed recommends. Coil the vine in a serpentine figure in the box, and cover well with soil or sand. Patience is needed for the leaf axils to swell and transform to a bulblet. Keep well moistened.
At the U.C. Botanical Garden, Berkeley, propagation of cuttings is approached in a routine manner. Cuttings of 18 inches long strands or longer of new vine recently harden are taken. Coarse perlite is used for the lower 2/3 of a six inch pot, and the upper 1/3 of pot filled with a mix consisting of 95% regular perlite & 5% peat moss. The cutting strands are laid down and arranged within the confines of the pot and held down with hair pins. While twisting the strand to conform with the leaves tucked up or pulled up to capture light for photosynthesis, the perlite mix is poured such that it will cover the leaf axils and thus holds the leaf in place. The leaf cuttings are kept moist throughout the rooting process.
Cuttings given bottom heat and overhead mist results with aerial growth sprouting from the leaf axils within 4-6 months, sometimes longer. Roots can be expected to form later and the cuttings can be remove from mist bench, divided, and planted as individual plants once a root system has developed (additional 4-8 months).