Lee Valley & Veritas Gardening
Lee Valley 40 Years  
  Volume 14, Issue 7 - July 2019    
Gardening with Climbers
Nelly Moser clematis
The impressively large flowers of Nelly Moser clematis made this arbor their home.
The group of plants that grow vertically is commonly called climbers. Years ago, my arboriculture teacher defined them as lazy trees that didn’t bother to grow trunks. Instead these plants developed various and often amazingly effective climbing strategies.

The simplest technique used by many vines is to wrap themselves around nearby supports (in some cases themselves). They twist around the supports, clinging tightly as they develop. Commonly called twisting vines or twiners, plants that use this technique include wisteria (Wisteria spp.), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) and kiwi vine (Actinidia spp.), as well as annuals (or tender perennials) such as morning glory (Ipomoea spp.) and black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata).
Chinese wisteria
Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) makes a stunning garden focal point.
Many consider wisteria to be the finest of all climbing plants. It is famous for its long, pendulous, often scented flowers that come in purple, violet, pink and white. The pea-like blooms are followed by long brown seed pods. If left untended, wisteria soon become an untidy, knotted mass so regular pruning is a must. These sun-loving climbers develop massive woody branches that require a sturdy support.

Another substantial twisting climber often associated with cottage gardens is honeysuckle, valued for its profuse tubular and often sweetly scented flowers. The summer blooms are followed by red berries that are popular with birds.

If you are looking for fall and winter interest, try American bittersweet. This bulky twiner produces tiny inconspicuous flowers in summer, but a magnificent display of pea-sized orange fruit in fall. The showy berries, borne only on female plants, stay long into winter.

A mature kiwi vine’s foliage is an arresting sight in the garden. The pale-green, heart-shaped leaves look like they have been dipped in white paint, which gradually changes to deep pink. The vine also features small but fragrant white flowers in summer and attractive red foliage in fall.

Not many plants beat morning glory for fast greenery and pretty funnel-shaped flowers. Its blooms open in early morning and close in late afternoon. Morning glories come in a variety of amazing colors, including classic sky blue. This is an excellent plant to grow near the front door where its beauty can be appreciated as people leave in the morning.
Morning glory
The brilliant bloom of a morning glory cultivar (likely ‘Heavenly Blue’).
A cheerful alternative to morning glory is the less vigorous black-eyed Susan vine. The solitary flowers have five petals that are typically orange, although different varieties can be red, white or pale or bright yellow. All feature the characteristic brownish-purple center that inspired the common name.

A more advanced climbing technique includes the use of tendrils (specially modified leaves or stems) in addition to the corkscrew strategy. These tendrils, which can be simple or branched, wrap around support structures they come into contact with. Garden vegetables such as hop (Humulus spp.) and grapevine (Vitis spp.) commonly use this strategy.
Black-eyed Susan
Black-eyed Susan features bright yellow, tubular flowers.
Sometimes leaf stacks or petioles act like tendrils and coil around supports. All clematis (Clematis spp.) use twining leaf bases as their climbing agents. They do, however, require a support such as a lattice or trellis to wrap around. There are literally hundreds of clematis species and their hybrids. Most are deciduous, with only a few evergreen exceptions. This plant is valued for its stunning flowers and, as a bonus, its attractive silver-colored feathery seed heads.

Some master climbers attach themselves to supports using disk-like structures that resemble suction cups. Also called holdfasts, these structures allow vines to climb even smooth surfaces. Once attached, they are difficult to dislodge.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Boston ivy (P. tricuspidata) use this strategy. These closely related vines climb using small, branched tendrils tipped with sticky disks. Once vertical, they also send roots from stems and nodes for extra support. The compound foliage of the Virginia creeper has five to seven leaflets, while the leaves of Boston ivy are lobed and overlap like shingles. Both species produce inconspicuous flowers but display exceptionally brilliant red color in autumn.
Ivy plant holdfasts
The holdfasts of an ivy plant resemble centipede legs.
Certain advanced climbers have what are referred to as adventitious roots along their stems that they use to climb. The roots burrow deeply into their support and are nearly impossible to fully remove. Sometimes they can even cause significant damage. Common root climbers include ivy (Hedera spp.), wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), trumpet creeper (Campsis spp.), climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.) and climbing hydrangea vine (Schizophragma hydrangeoides).

One of the best known and overused grasping root climbers is evergreen ivy. There are many different cultivars that offer a wide range of leaf shape, color and vigor. Unfortunately, English ivy (Hedera helix) is considered invasive, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. It smothers anything and everything in its path, including buildings, shrubs and even trees. Gardeners tend to either love or hate another evergreen root climber called wintercreeper. It is grown for its attractive green or variegated foliage rather than its greenish flowers or tiny fruit.
Variegated ivy
Some climbers do well when potted such as this small-leaved variegated ivy (Hedera helix 'Glacier').
If you are looking for something more exotic, try trumpet creeper, also known as trumpet vine. It produces drooping clusters of striking trumpet-shaped flowers in shades of red or orange in late summer and early fall.

Most hydrangeas form rounded shrubs, but there are some species that are well-equipped for climbing. Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris (also known as H. petiolaris) is the most common and reportedly the hardiest. It can thrive in shady areas and offers glossy foliage and masses of lacy, white flower heads in early summer.

Schizophragma, also known as climbing hydrangea vine, differs from hydrangea in terms of its blooms, which feature one white tear-shaped petal-like sepal. In terms of ornamental value, the flowers of climbing hydrangea vine offer greater presence in shade gardens than those of the climbing hydrangea. Whereas a hydrangea can be truly beautiful, a schizophragma is breathtaking.
Climbing hydrangea
A climbing hydrangea in full bloom is a highlight in any garden.
One of many valuable features of climbers is their ability to make any supporting structure a part of the garden. These plants can also act as excellent screens for garden eyesores such as an old shed or a rotting stump. Some can even bring flowers right up to your bedroom window. The use of these vertical plants is also the simplest way to increase your garden’s size.

Aside from the unquestionable ornamental value climbers provide, they also have economic benefits. Like green roofs, they can keep buildings warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, thereby reducing energy costs. They also purify the air and lower acoustic pollution.

It must be noted that some of the vigorous climbers described are classified as invasive. Besides English ivy (Hedera helix), evergreen Japanese honeysuckle vine (Lonicera japonica) and Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) are also on the infamous invasive species list in Canada. Wisterias of Asian origin, particularly Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda), and many species of morning glory, especially blue morning glory (Ipomoea indica), are highly invasive south of the Canadian border. Selecting the right climber for your garden is a crucial decision. If you already have a noxious climbing weed and its removal is not an option, prune it heavily after flowering to prevent seed formation and further infestation.
Boston ivy
Boston ivy covers an old house in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Aneta Kazmierczak)
Although the list of climbers cited in this article is far from complete, I do hope you are inspired to extend your garden vertically and open a new chapter – gardening with climbers.

Gina Dobrodzicka

Gina Dobrodzicka is a freelance writer and trained horticulturalist who lives on Vancouver Island.
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