Growing Chocolate Vines- Akebia quinata
Do you need a hardy vine for a sunny or partly shaded spot that’s unusual? Do you want something pretty that covers an eyesore or arbor quickly? Try a Chocolate vine or as it’s sometimes called, Raisin vine or Five Leaf Akebia. Chocolate vines grow quickly, have sweet smelling flowers and produce an edible, decorative fruit. They are hardy in planting zones 4-8. The plant is native to Japan and other parts of Asia. There are several species in cultivation. Named varieties include “Silver Bells”, “Violet” and “Purple Bouquet”.
Why this vine is called Chocolate vine is unknown. The vine has leaves consisting of 5 rounded leaflets. There is a variety with white variegated leaves but it is hard to find. The vines can keep their leaves all winter in warmer zones but usually shed them in the fall in colder zones. In hard winters the vine can die back to the ground but will quickly recover in spring. The vines can grow 40 feet in a year and quickly cover a trellis, fence or out building. They will grow in sun or partial shade.
Some southeastern states are labeling the Chocolate vine as invasive, but in colder zones it is no more invasive than wisteria or trumpet vine. If you are a gardener who has either of those vines you can guess that Chocolate vine is a vigorous grower and it is when it’s in a good spot. It can spread by runners and will cover a lot of ground if unchecked but in northeastern states it rarely spreads to the wild. Vigorous pruning and keeping runners mowed or chopped down will contain the plant. In northern zones plants rarely propagate naturally by seed.
Chocolate vine flowers and fruit
Chocolate vine has tiny flowers in mid-spring to early summer in dangling clusters. The sepals of the flowers look like petals and can be white, pink, yellow and shades of purple. Older plants in full sun are loaded with flowers in spring and quite attractive. Depending on the weather and species chocolate vines can flower before leaves emerge or when the leaves are still small. They have a sweet scent but its more lilies of the valley or lilac smelling than chocolate. The smell isn’t overpowering but will pleasantly scent a garden or yard.
If the flowers of Chocolate vine get pollinated they turn into fat, sausage shaped blue or purple seed pods about 5 inches long which are attractive on the vine. These ripen in late summer-early fall. The pods are filled with a creamy white roll of thick jelly-like material studded with tiny round black seeds. The jelly is edible, but once again it doesn’t taste like chocolate. It’s the texture of marshmallow or custard and is sweet but bland. In Japan jelly is made from the pulp. The pods are sometimes filled with rice and meat and deep fried.
Pollination of the Chocolate vine can be a problem. Some gardeners get tons of fruit pods, others none. Bees don’t seem too interested in the plants. It may be that beetles or some other insect pollinate the chocolate vine in Japan. In the north the flowers may occur before many pollinators are out or be frost damaged. It may also be that some plants are just more fruitful than others.
While each Chocolate vine flower has both male and female parts they don’t self-fertilize and at least two plants are needed to get fruit. Many growers recommend two different varieties or species for best pollination and offer two species in pairs to buyers. However other growers feel that two plants, whether the same species or not will be enough for pollination. If you aren’t getting fruit pods it’s suggested that you can pollinate flowers with a paintbrush, moving pollen from one plants flowers to another plant’s flowers.
Planting Chocolate vine
Chocolate vine will grow in most places but prefers a light or sandy loam soil. Best flowering and fruiting occurs in full sun but Chocolate vine will grow in partial or even full shade in some cases. Indirect bright light such as on the north side of buildings is fine. Chocolate vine doesn’t need fertilization unless your soil is very poor. It prefers moist but well drained soil but can withstand dry periods.
Plant your Chocolate vine next to a sturdy support as it can overwhelm and topple flimsy supports. The different vines needed for pollination can be at least 20 feet apart perhaps more. Some people have used Chocolate vines as a sprawling ground cover for preventing erosion with great success.
Prune Chocolate vine after it flowers if you want flowers and fruit pods. You can prune it hard to keep it in bounds or shape it. If it gets too large and ungainly you can prune it right back to the ground and it will recover quickly. Watch that Chocolate vine doesn’t climb into trees as it can quickly smother them.
Chocolate vine has few pests or diseases and deer and rabbits seem to leave them alone.
Propagating Chocolate vine
Chocolate vines are easily propagated from soft new growth cuttings about 6 inches long, generally taken in late spring- early summer. The seeds can be saved from ripe pods but they must be planted immediately as they don’t store well. Plant them in a fine potting medium inside, in a warm area. They will need to grow overwinter in a warm bright area. This is probably why Chocolate vine does not spread well by seed in northern areas as the seedlings would be killed by cold.
Medicinal uses of Chocolate vine
Akebia is used in Chinese/Japanese herbal medicines as a diuretic and to increase the milk flow in nursing mothers. For this purpose stems are chopped in fine pieces, dried and powdered then used in teas and decoctions.
Sources for Chocolate Vine