Few plants attract as much admiration as the Mexican bell vine (Rhodochiton atrosanguineum). This Mexican plant is a short-lived perennial that can reach about 2m from seed in a single summer and has intriguing flowers. The calyx is enlarged into a showy, wine-coloured, flaring bell (more parachute than bell perhaps) and the actual flower is long and tubular and dark, beetroot purple. The flowers last about a week and then drop out but the calyx remains for many weeks before it starts to lose colour. A well grown plant is festooned with hundreds of these bells. It is usual to start from a packet of seeds but if you can buy a plant that is probably a better way. This is because a packet usually only contains less than 10 seeds and I find that I rarely get better than 50% germination. But a plant will easily carry several seeds pods and each of these contains 50 seeds. I find that only about 10% of the flowers actually produce a seedpod under that bell, perhaps because of lack of pollinators, but that will easily give you enough plants. The seedlings are very small at first, very slow to grow and very sensitive to overwatering – there follows a cautionary tale. Last year I bought a packet of seeds and my intention was to get enough seeds to be really lavish with the plants this year. I got six seedlings and these grew well in their small cell trays. I foolishly potted them, once they started to elongate and were about 10cm high, into 10cm pots. This was too big a jump in pot size and the young plants, surrounded by a lot of wet compost, started to wilt because they were overwatered and the roots rotted. I managed to save one plant by taking it out of the large pot and repotting it in a smaller pot, watering very carefully. That plant grew well and I saved lots of seeds. The pods start off pink but when they turn straw brown they are dry and you can easily puncture them and tip out the seeds. So this year I started with lots of seeds and had about 50 seedlings transplanted when the propagator malfunction in March meant that I lost them all. Apart from one! So I am back to square one and this plant is growing in the greenhouse with the tomatoes. By coincidence the first time I ever grew this was in growing bags, with tomatoes in the greenhouse of my landlady when I was a student in Richmond. I have to say that they grew really well that year and my lone plant is repeating that performance with tomatoes as neighbours. * Rhodochiton is related to foxgloves and, more closely, asarina and lofos. It clings to its support by twisting its leaf stalks around anything it catches. The new shoots are very delicate and easily broken but the plants branch and can ramble far and wide. It is a genteel plant that is much more elegant and delicate than most other annual climbers. It is well suited to growing in a container and is seen to best effect if some of the stems are trained horizontally. It could be planted in a hanging basket but I don’t think this would display the blooms well and the growth would get into a tangle.
Geoff’s rating 9/10
Garden rating 9/10
* I think this is probably because rhodochiton likes a bit of shade and perfect drainage. The toms provide some shade and soak up excess moisture and the high potash fertiliser for the toms can only help the rhodochiton bloom.
From my one plant in 2014 I collected lots of seeds. I was very stupid and put them in an envelope that was not labelled and someone threw them out! Another disaster! But there were three seedpods left on the original plant – which is now flowering strongly again. So I managed to raise more than 50 new plants and I have taken some to Springmount Garden Centre near Ballycanew, Wexford where they are for sale at €2.99 (1 June 2015 – they won’t be around long). And I have plenty for here too so perhaps I will have better display this year – at last!