Magnolia Vine . . . a deciduous, woody-stemmed, twining climber.

Magnolia Vine

Schisandra chinensis
Family: Schisandraceae (Schisandra family)
Genus: Schisandra
Species: chinensis

Magnolia VineNote to readers: Last summer, the author of the Plant of the Month series received requests to feature two plants...Stevia and Azteca. Alas, Cheryll reports that she isn’t familiar with either one of them and can’t find any other reference to them. If you know what they are or have even a bit more information about their names, please call her at 676-4947. She would like to honor all such requests, but she’s just plain stumped on this one and needs your help. Thanks!

This month, it was my hope to feature something that you would see during the upcoming Master Gardener Foundation trip to the Bellevue Botanical Garden. I was unable to connect with the docent leading the MGF tour before deadline for this article. So I stepped outside my front door for inspiration…and nearly tripped over a saucer-sized blossom of a magnolia vine. Schisandra chinensis is an interesting plant, and one you may very well encounter in Bellevue. It is native to northern China and has been recognized, gathered, and then cultivated for centuries. Its berries were a staple food for hunting and gathering tribes, and it has been an essential component of natural medicines prescribed by physicians in that region for many thousands of years. Schisandra chinensis was listed in the Yellow Emperor’s Study of Inner Medicine, an encyclopedia of healing plants, in 2697 BC. This certainly predates western horticultural history! It was reputed, by the way, to relieve digestive distress and to increase energy. In our gardens, however, it is featured as an ornamental rather than an edible.

Schisandra chinensis is a vine—a deciduous, woody-stemmed, twining climber. Its appearance is not unlike that of a clematis, and the two vines are quite compatible in terms of their cultural requirements. The stems of S. chinensis are not quite as fragile as those of the clematis, but it is every bit as enthusiastic in its growth habit. It will easily grow 25 feet in a season; but this is not unreasonable, given its charming habit of rambling nicely through its neighbors rather than overwhelming them. Schisandra chinensis will weave itself through a rhododendron or around porch rails, producing its white blooms when the ones on the rhododendron have faded. And what blooms! They are similar in form to a peony, four to five inches across and pure white, nestled in a ruffled collar of green-and-white variegated leaves. Only the new leaves surrounding the blossoms are variegated; the leaves along the stem are solid green, grouped in threes, and slightly heart shaped. The blooms themselves are lightly fragrant and, I suspect, their perfume would be stronger in a warmer climate.

The blooms of Schisandra chinensis are followed by edible berries on female plants. This is the one major challenge of growing this plant: both sexes must be present if berries are desired, and plants by necessity are often sold unsexed. The berries themselves are brownish red and edible. The Chinese name for the fruit is Wu wei zi, or “five flavored seed,” because the fruit is reputed to be sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty. Some say the flavor is reminiscent of cloves.

Schisandra chinensis is hardy to Zone 4. It is most happy growing in moist soil, rich with organic matter, with its roots in the shade and its top in dappled shade or full morning sun. Prune selectively after blooming for a chance of a second set of blossoms in late summer; and then cut the plant down to just above the second or third bud in early spring. Make sure it receives regular watering and feeding, as you would with your clematis. Bait for snails when the first new growth emerges; few other pests or diseases seem to bother this dependable vine. It is very beautiful, but not in the least temperamental.