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How Plants Climb

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

As a plant geek I am often fascinated by how plants work. Take vining and climbing plants and the methods that they use to grow vertically.

In broad terms, climbing plants are either clinging or non-clinging. As the name implies, clinging vines attached themselves to a surface using special features, such as suction cups or aerial roots.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a good example of a vine that uses suction cups to attach itself to trees, fences, houses, and even smooth surfaces. The closely related Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) also has suction cups. By the way, many people mistakenly identify these two plants as either poison ivy or oak because Virginia creeper and Boston ivy's young plants sometimes have leaflets of three similar to poison ivy or oak. Poison oak does not grow here.

One way to distinguish them is that poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) uses small, root-like structures, not suction cups, along their stem to attach themselves. They particularly like rough, intricate surfaces such as brick, wood, and lattice structures. Other examples that use this climbing technique include climbing hydrangea, English ivy, trumpetcreeper, and Euonymus wintercreeper.

Non-clinging vines use various growth adaptations to help them climb. These all twine in a spiral fashion around and up a support. Interestingly enough, some plants spiral clockwise and others twine counter clockwise. In fact, if you try to coax a plant the wrong way it will unwind itself and re-twine properly.

Some plants not only twine, but also have appendages to help them further. A good example are tendrils, which are actually modified leaves or branches that help corkscrew plants parts to a support. Examples of vines with tendrils are wisteria, clematis, peas, cucumbers, passion flowers, and grapes.

Finally, there are a group of climbers that must have support to grow vertically. Many classify these plants as ramblers, which include climbing rose and jasmine. Rambling plants actually lean more than climb, so need good vertical support.

Want to learn more about plants that grow in unusual ways? Plant adaptations is the topic of an upcoming University of Illinois Extension Four Seasons Garden webinar series. Join University of Illinois Extension Educator Kelly Allsup as she reveals some of the most unique plants we deal with, while giving you the newest and latest research on them.

Mysterious Modifications will be presented via live webinar on Tuesday September 27 at 1:30 p.m. and again on Thursday, September 29 at 6:30 p.m. Or you can listen to a taped version beginning the following week. For more information visit our website at or call 309-543-3308.

For more about vines, go to Vines: Climbers and Twiners at



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.