How do Vines Climb?

Vines are useful for growing on a wall, trellis or other structure because they possess the ability to climb and cover the structure. But how do vines climb? Vines can climb by twining, through the use of tendrils, or by aerial rootlets. Some vines climb by a modification of one of these methods. And some vines do not climb at all. A vine’s climbing method is characteristic of the species.

The first climbing method used by plants is twining. Twining plants wrap their entire stems around a support as they grow. This support must be rather thin to enable the plant to grow around it. Chain-link fences and wooden lattice provide excellent support for this type of climbing vine.

The direction a plant twines is specific to that particular species. For example, Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) (Figure 6) will only twine clockwise around a support. If it is planted at the base of a trellis, and wound counterclockwise around the trellis, the plant will often unwind itself and then rewind in the genetically determined direction.

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Figure 6.  Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) has a clockwise twining habit. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Metal supports should be avoided in hot, sunny areas. The stems of twining vines can be burned if the metal heats up in the sun. Chain- link fences or other metal supports should be plastic coated to reduce heat buildup. Metal twist-ties should not be used to tie the vine to the support. String or other non-heat conducting materials should be used instead.

The second climbing method used by some plants is by tendrils. Tendrils are modified leaves or stems that form a coiled structure. The tendril twists around the support to hold the plant up. Tendrils react to contact with the support. When they come in contact with a suitable support, they can wrap around it in less than an hour. Some plants, such as the Cross Vine (Bignonia capreolata), have small suction cups at the ends of the tendrils further aiding in attachment (Figure 7). Like twining vines, vines that climb by tendrils must have a support thin enough to wrap around or they can not climb. Tendril-type vines grow very well on lattices and chain-link fences. They cannot climb brick or solid wood walls.

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Figure 7.  The Cross Vine (Bignonia capreolata), has small suction cups at the ends of its tendrils to aid in attachment to a structure. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

A third climbing method used by plants is aerial rootlets. These rootlets emerge at the nodes and produce a sticky cement that helps the plant adhere to the support. An example is the English Ivy. Because these types of plants do not wrap around the support, they can climb surfaces such as walls, tree trunks and even glass.

The bond formed by the aerial rootlets of a vine with its supporting structure are very strong. This can create a problem if the vine needs to be removed for some reason. The rootlets will take paint off a wall and leave a residue that is very difficult to remove. The rootlets themselves can be a problem, especially on brick walls. The rootlets work into the mortar, loosening it and eventually causing damage to the wall. Careful placement of plants that use aerial rootlets is required.

Some plants are considered vines, but have no means of climbing. Instead they trail on the ground, or weave themselves through other plants in an effort to gain more light. Climbing roses have no means of climbing (Figure 8). They produce very long branches called canes that must be attached to a structure. If not firmly secured, they tend to flop over and trail along the ground.

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Figure 8.  Climbing roses do not climb, but produce long canes that can be attached
to a structure. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

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