Climbers bring interest and drama to Santa Cruz Sentinel Park

Climbers bring interest and drama to Santa Cruz Sentinel Park

Climbers like Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’ tendrils are great for a long, dramatic focal point. (Tom Carwin – Reporter)

If your garden needs a dramatic focal point, a taller feature to contrast with low-growing plants, or something that fits into a limited space, consider a climber.

Climbers are a fairly large and diverse category of garden plants, with options for many different situations. There are several lists of climbing plants that gardeners particularly enjoy. Sometimes, some garden writers seem obsessed with making lists. I try to resist this temptation, and instead recommend that interested people search the Internet for “climbing plants,” and browse the lists that will appear on your screen. Another good resource is the Western Garden Book’s Guide to Selection of Vines.

There are two broad categories of climbing plants: those that thrive in full or partial shade, and those that need full sun. Shade lovers are mostly foliage plants, such as Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Algerian Ivy (Hedera algeriensis “Gloire de Marengo”). Sun lovers – a large group, too many to count – usually offer colorful flowers.

Another important variable among climbers is their height at maturity. Some, like the previously mentioned Virginia Creeper and Algerian Ivy, can reach impressive heights, up to 150 feet. Another plant capable of large heights and blooms is the shade-tolerant climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris), which can reach 80 feet. These hardy climbers can be good choices for high walls or sides of buildings in need of decoration. I once recommended Climbing Hydrangea for a residence that was backed by a steep slope that was very close to the back windows of the house.

At the other end of the scale are climbers who typically reach six feet or less, or who can easily be controlled to such heights. Examples include sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), Climbing Snapdragon (Asarina scandens), and certain types of jasmine, for example C. alpine or C. integrifolia). These climbers can be charming models for larger containers with a compact trellis.

There are many climbers that grow to heights between these two extremes. As with all selections, be sure to know the plant’s mature size before adding it to your garden.

All climbers need support of some kind to reach their maximum height. The support needed depends on the specific plant’s climbing method. Here are five categories of climbing routes:

• Tendrils, wiry growths from plant stems, can grab onto thin supports, such as netting or metal mesh. Examples include grapes and sweet peas.

• Twiners are stems or leaves that can be wrapped around wires, twine, branches or other stems. Plants that use this method are called “pinnats.” Clematis, Morning Glory, jasmine, and honeysuckle all use this method.

• Jammers have long, flexible stems similar to vines, but lack a way to grip the support. Examples include climbing and rambling roses, and bougainvillea. These plants use thorns or prickles as hooks to aid in climbing, but they need a trellis or other support. One interesting option for larger spaces is to use bougainvillea as a stunning ground cover.

• Stickers are sticky pads or tendrils that stick to many different surfaces. Plants that use this method include Virginia Creeper and its relative Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata).

• Stem roots are short, strong roots that grow from plant stems and attach to various surfaces. English and Algerian ivy use this method, as do climbing hydrangea. I planted Algerian ivy as a ground cover, and soon found it growing in a two-story brick chimney. I now need a long ladder or scaffold to remove it before the mortar is damaged.

My garden includes a few climbing roses, one rambling rose, sweet peas, evergreen jasmine (c. armandii), Chilean jasmine (Mandevilla laxa), and California grape (Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’, which is actually a cross of the California plant and is A native grape and a commercial variety), rampant Algerian ivy, and two Australian natives: Cape Arid quinedea (Cinnidia bicciana ‘Flamboyant’) and Wonga vine (Pandora pandurana). Four of the five climbing methods are represented among these plants, excluding only the label method.

Climbing plants bring variety to the garden, often contributing color, drama and even challenges to the landscape. It’s definitely worth a try, but as always do enough research to avoid surprises.

Tom Carwin is President of the Cactus and Succulents Society of the Monterey Bay Area, Past President of the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, and Life Master Gardener at UC Santa Cruz (certified 1999-2009). Visit for links to information on this topic, and send comments or questions to

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