What one vine can boast pest-free adaptability, rapid growth, beautiful, fragrant flowers, lovely foliage, and fascinatingly dramatic, edible-fleshed fruit? The answer is a deciduous vine, five-leaf akebia, Akebia quinata. Akebia is most often noticed in the early fall when its fat, interesting fruit hang from the vine, but it is also a marvelous plant throughout the entire growing season. Five-leaf akebia is a deciduous to semi-evergreen, twining, climbing vine with divided foliage. Each leaf consists of five individual leaflets grouped into five 'fingers' of an oddly hand-shaped leaf (hence the name five-leaf akebia).
Each spring, the vine is covered with dark, wine-purple, 1" wide flowers. The flowers are strikingly beautiful but are at their peak when the new foliage has already emerged and so require reasonably close inspection for full appreciation. Nonetheless, the chambered, deeply colored blooms are quite wonderful and exude an light, fruity scent that is a welcome harbinger of the heady aromas of summer in the garden. Looking up into the flowers dangling from an arbor or trellis is the perfect way to see these richly colorful floral ornaments. Male and female flowers are different from each other, with male flowers often being somewhat lighter in color. Female flowers mature in the fall into fabulous, six to eight inch long fruit that hang from the vine like dozens of purple bratwurst. The pulp of these fruit is actually edible and the fruit split open to reveal rows of shiny black seeds as they mature. The foliage of five-leaf akebia is a beautiful, soft, blue-green during the spring and summer but there is no fall color display.
Five-leaf akebia is an incredibly tough native of China, Korea, and Japan that will adapt to almost any site in sun or shade, or wet or dry conditions. It is hardy throughout the southeastern United States from the coast to the mountains. This is a very rapidly growing vine and is an excellent choice for providing beautiful, three-season interest, quickly, on most any landscape surface. New fences, old neighborhood boundaries, trellises painted just the wrong shade, and budget-lumber arbors can all be effectively covered with this delightful vine in almost no time. It is pest and disease free, requiring little maintenance except, perhaps, periodic pruning to keep it in bounds. Akebia is readily propagated from cuttings taken in spring and early summer and rooted under mist.
There are a few named cultivars of Akebia quinata that can be found with a bit of persistent hunting in specialty nurseries. 'Alba' and 'Shirobana' are white-flowered and white-fruited forms with lighter green leaves and slightly less vigorous growth rates than their darker cousin. 'Alba' is slightly more evergreen in nature and blooms a bit earlier with more fragrance. 'Rosea' has light magenta or lavender flowers, almost as if it had faded to a more delicate tint than the species, and 'Variegata' has white variegated foliage.
There are also two other species of Akebia that may be available. Akebia trifoliata, three-leaflet akebia, is also a China native with leaves divided into threes instead of fives but otherwise is similar to Akebia quinata. It may be a less vigorous climber and slightly less hardy than A. quinata but it has the same dark red flowers and fruit. Akebia ×pentaphylla is a hybrid of A. quinata and A. trifoliata with traits intermediate to those of its parents.
At the NCSU Arboretum, a number of different Akebia species and cultivars weave delightfully around each other on the arbor at the Arboretum's entrance. Their intricate carpet of divided, handsome foliage and deeply colored flowers makes an inviting cover to the entry walk. At the entrance to the Arboretum, the beauty of akebia welcomes you into the gardens.