Climbing plants Gardening Trees

Yes, You Can Let Vines Climb Trees!

Climbing hydrangea with white flowers climbing up a tree.

A climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris) growing on a tree: nothing could be more natural! Photo: Dave Epstein, @growingwisdom

What is it that gardeners have against letting climbing plants—vines if you prefer—clamber into trees? This is how most of them live in the wild, yet in the gardening world, at least in North America, such a use seems to be considered an anathema. (Brits seem to be more open to the idea while, if you want to see beautiful marriages of climbing plants and trees, try visiting German gardens. German gardeners seem to fully understand the concept!)

True enough, in certain public gardens, there are magnificent specimens of trees decorated with climbing hydrangeas, climbing honeysuckles or clematis, but even so, few gardeners seem to think that the concept could be adapted to a home garden. The belief seems to be that a climber can’t be grown anywhere other than on a trellis, arbor or pergola. Letting a climbing plant grow up a tree, claim many gardening websites, will kill it. 

Well, that’s nonsense! True enough, you wouldn’t let an overly aggressive climber loose on a small or weak tree (more on that below), but then, when you garden, you wouldn’t plant a dominating, weedy plant next to a fragile, rare specimen, would you? Gardening is all about marking careful matches. And there are good combos of trees and climbers and bad ones.

Which Climbers to Choose?

Self-clinging climbers—ones with adhesive pads or aerial roots (such as Virginia creeper, Boston ivy, climbing hydrangea, and English ivy)—are the easiest to use this way, although they tend to be quite dominant climbers, best limited to large, fully grown trees. The advantage is that they will climb all on their own, because they cling onto any rough surface and, in fact, specifically evolved to fasten onto bark.

Dutchman’s pipe with heart-shaped leaves climbs up a tree.
Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla) creates a wonderful effect when allowed to climb a tree. Photo: paramountplants.co.uk

The twining stems of certain other climbers, such as bittersweet (Celastrus spp.) and Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla), form very broad loops and can thus encircle a tree trunk quite wide in girth, allowing them to therefore climb even massive trees with any other help.

Mixture of clematis climbing a tree.
It often takes a bit of cordage or wire mesh to help some climbers, like these clematis, begin their climb up a tree. Photo: forums.gardenweb.com

That isn’t the case with all twining climbers. Many, such as clematis and most annual climbers, like scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus) and morning glories (various species of Ipomea), can only wrap themselves around fairly slim supports: twine, netting, moderately thin branches, etc. Planted at the base of a tree, they often try to climb, then lose hold and slide down: not exactly the effect you want! You need to provide them with wire netting or some sort of cord to wrap around until they reach at least the lower branches of the tree. From there on in, though, thanks to the thinner branches found there, they can then start to climb on their own.

Rosa 'Blue Magenta' climbing a tree.
You need to attach climbing roses (here Rosa ‘Blue Magenta’, a rambling rose) to the tree trunk at first, but once they’ve reached the lower branches, they’ll generally grow upward with no other support. Photo: pflanzmich.de

Finally, there are climbing roses (Rosa spp.). As most gardeners already know, they really don’t climb on their own. You always need to tie their rather rigid stems to their support to start them off in the right direction, even when you grow them on a trellis. The situation is no different when you want them to grow up a tree. Afterwards, as with weaker twining climbers, once their branches start to mingle with the tree’s branches, they’ll no longer need your help.

Helpful Hint: When looking for climbing roses to grow on a tree, consider rambling roses. Not that well known in North America, they have taller, more flexible stems than classical climbing roses and are the best types for training up a tree. You’ll most likely find them in specialist rose nurseries.

How to Plant a Climber Under a Tree

Illustration of how to plant a climber at the drip line of a tree
To make planting easier, place the climber away from the trunk, out around the tree’s drip line, then direct the stems toward the trunk. Ill.: clipart-library.com & pngtree.com.

Small trees rarely have much of a root system and if you want to plant a climber near their base, that’s usually quite doable. However, if you want to plant a climber at the base of a large, well-established tree, planting at its base is going to be very difficult. Huge roots will likely thwart your efforts at digging a suitable hole; plus conditions will be too dark, dry, and low in nutrients to give the climber a good head start. So, cheat a bit and plant the climber out close to the tree’s drip line (the outer edge of its leafy canopy), where roots will be less dominant and ressources, more abundant. Then direct the long stems toward the trunk, securing them to the ground with stakes if you have to (they’ll usually root into the soil there on their own once they start growing). Once they make contact with the trunk, you’ll see that most of them will start to climb with surprising vigor, as if they had waited all their life for a chance to climb … which is, of course, exactly the situation.

A Reasoned Choice

Trees completely overgrown with kudzu.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana lobata) is far too aggressive to grow up a tree! It will likely engulf its host … and all other nearby trees as well! Photo: plants.usda.gov

Obviously, you have to be logical in your choice of climber.

If a climber is invasive in your area, such as kudzu (Pueraria montana lobata), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), or Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbicularis), all considered undesirable invasive species in many parts of America and Europe; obviously, they shouldn’t be planted. And English ivy (Hedera helix), perfectly acceptable in Europe where it’s native, cannot be recommended in those parts of North America where it self-sows too aggressively. But there are dozens of other climbing plants you can use that nobody considers invasive.

Climbing rose with red flowers clambering into an apple tree.
A less vigorous climber, such as a climbing rose, makes a better choice for a small tree like this apple tree than would a strong, tall, dominant climber like Virginia creeper. Photo: http://www.fotocommunity.dewers clambering into an apple tree.

Also, vigorous and very dominant climbers, such as Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), Virginia creeper (P. quinquefolia) and American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) can take over and choke out young trees or trees of naturally small size, such as Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) or crabapples (Malus spp.). Limit their use to large, mature trees (full-grown oaks, maples, lindens, etc.). For small trees, pick climbers of lesser vigor, such as climbing roses and clematis.

Also, only plant varieties that are well suited to your climate, especially your hardiness zone, and your growing conditions. Not much will come of planting a tropical climber like bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spp.) in the cold North!

However, if you pick carefully, why not plant climbing plants to give your trees a bit of punch? Two plants sharing one space? Ma Nature does it all the time, so why shouldn’t you?

Adapted from an article first published on February 24, 2015.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

10 comments on “Yes, You Can Let Vines Climb Trees!

  1. Here in zone 7b, English ivy does kill mature trees. If ivy gets to a certain height, it starts to produce seeds, so that it has two ways of spreading. Are there other plants that share this weird adaptation?

    During the first day of the pandemic, I pulled out forty trash bags full of ivy and now it’s creeping back. Eek!

    • I meant ‘days’, not ‘day’!

    • Yes, I know about how invasive ivy can be in “milder” climates. Here, it’s little more than a ground cover (in protected spots), otherwise, it’s a houseplant. No danger it will either climb or bear fruit.

  2. Most of my trees in the back have had clingy vines going up the tree for years. I like it that way. Sometimes the trees are rotting or dying because of storms or lighting strikes and the green makes them pretty (and probably holds them together a bit longer for the birds and squirrels who live in ’em). I might get rid of the weed trees if they get to thick around the base (the Chinese tallows are just nuts around here, and a nuisance in most places), but the vines I try to leave alone. Fun to watch the birds play peek a boo around the bigger leaves.

  3. What kind of trees (other than small or young ones) are unsuitable for hardy climbers? How about pines? That is, can a pine support the added weight of something like a climbing hydrangea?

    • I don’t think any tree is unsuitable for climbing plants. Pines in the wild often share their space with them, as do other conifers. In a sense, woody climbers can actually reinforce trees, at least once they mature a bit and add their force to that of the tree.

  4. Christine Lemieux

    I have a not so pretty, large crab apple tree that has scab and holes from a Northern Flicker. Last year I removed many of the branches and all of the leaves to create a sort of sculptural affect. I planted a kiwi vine, but it didn’t grow very much. Now I know it is too close to the tree trunk. Thanks for the great article.

  5. There are so many different kinds of vines. Some work well in trees. Some climb chain link fences. Some climb the concrete block sound walls of the freeways through Los Angeles. Bougainvillea, which among the more popular of vines here, does not climb very well, so must be trained up into trellises and such. As you say, selection of the right vine for a situation is very important.
    The redwoods here can accommodate any vine that will cling to them. (Some clinging vines find them distasteful.) However, naturalized English ivy never stops climbing, and gets overgrown and unsightly on otherwise picturesque redwoods. People often cut the ivy at the base, but can not remove it from the trees. It gets hundreds of feet high!

  6. Christine

    I have a wooden utility pole in my front yard I’d like to hide. Climbers would be ideal for camouflaging the pole, but not if it reaches the wires. Is there any species that won’t grow that high (say over 20 feet)? Is there any way to prevent a climber from going over a certain height without aggressive pruning (some type of scaffolding)?

    • You’ll find what to do in the paragraph starting with “That isn’t the case with all twining climbers.” Most of those with twining stems or tendrils can’t climb a thick pole on their own. A wire grid to somewhat less than the height you want would allow them to grow and decorate the pole without them reaching the wires. Some of the taller clematis would work, among others.

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