Climbing plants

Growing Vines on Trees: Why Not?

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris) is an expert tree-climber!

Tired of looking at naked tree trunks in your wooded garden? Why not spice them up with the attractive foliage and flowers of a climbing plant? Many gardeners seem to think that vines can only be grown on a trellis of some sort, but in the wild, almost all grow up trees or tall shrubs. And there’s no reason you can’t repeat this oh so very natural way of growing in your garden!

Climbing plants with aerial roots or suckers, such as Virginia creeper, Boston ivy, English ivy and climbing hydrangea, are the most obvious choices. They’re designed to latch onto any kind of surface, including tree trunks, and will therefore climb all on their own. You just have to plant them at the foot of a tree and up they go. A snap!

Twining vines take a little more thought. Some have twining stems that form large spirals and can therefore wrap around all but the thickest trunks. Therefore they will almost always climb on their own. In this group are American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) and Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla).

Some aren’t quite so “encompassing”. Scarlet runner bean and morning glory will wrap their stems around a moderate size branch, but not a thick trunk. Attach a trellis, netting, or cord to the trunk and let them grow on that.

Clematis ‘Perle d’Azur’ needs netting or cords to “get a grip” on a trunk.

Clematis is an even weaker climber: it has twining petioles (leaf stems) and they can only manage to cling to a very thin support. Even some trellises are too thick for them! Cords or netting are good choices for directing clematis up a trunk. Of course, once they reach the first branches, they’re usually able to climb on their own.

Finally, climbing roses are the most hopeless climbers of all. Even a trellis is of little use! Simply tie them to the trunk to launch them in the right direction. Once they’ve reached the tree’s lower branches, though, they’re fine on their own: they readily mingle with branches, using their thorns as hooks to hoist themselves further up.

There you go: lots of ideas for bringing those dull trunks to life… and giving your garden a lusher, junglelike appearance.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

11 comments on “Growing Vines on Trees: Why Not?

  1. Some vines have a sneaky way of getting very high into redwoods, with branches that seem to be very far out of reach. They start growing with the redwoods while the redwoods are very young. They keep climbing higher into the canopy, even as the redwood sheds the original branches that the vines climbed into. That is how bougainvillea, which does not climb much better than climbing roses, gets into the a redwood with no branches below forty feet up.

  2. thronedancer888

    I do it with yellow jasmine and Thunbergia for some shrubs w bare trunks. Also Moonflower does great climbing on shrubs and small trees (with some guidance on the larger trunks).
    A plus to this is that they drop seed and a few will germinate from that to provide new plants.

  3. I’m pretty convinced that English ivy (which is invasive and woodland destroying here in the US SE) is a tree killer, based on observation.


  4. lynnegfitzgerald

    Thank you for this article. I have done this in every garden I’ve had with a tree. I always plant Virginia creeper. I’ve been in my Charlottetown house since 2017 and my Virginia creeper is way up my Maple tree now. I did plant a Climbing hydrangea to cover my catio but it has got to be the slowest growing vine in the world. I can’t wait to see it in all it’s glory.

  5. Ginluvsguinness

    Won’t some of these harm the tree?

    • Those that cling to the trunk, not really. Those that stretch out into the branches might cut off some light and force the tree to adapt. Just like the way climbers do on trees in the wild. A very strong climber – like kudzu – could cover and smother a mature tree, but that doesn’t happen often. The owner could prune back any branches they feel are taking over.

      • Mary L Discuillo

        Beware. If it grows up into the tree where you can’t reach it you might be sorry. Then it becomes a tangled mess. Flowering also impeded due to all the shade cover from the tree.

      • Wisteria will become invasive and kill any tree it climbs.

  6. Kimberly Sowin

    Have you ever seen or heard of growing a vine called Petrea Volubilis up s tree trunk? It’s s woody vine and does not have arias roots.

    • Yes, it will clamber up trees by twining. As such, it may need to be attached to the trunk until it reaches branches thin enough to twine around.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!

%d bloggers like this: