What is the Difference Between Climbers and Creepers?

Boston ivy scaling a wall
David Beaulieu

Vine plants can be either climbers or creepers. The climbers are plants that can get off the ground on their own, provided that there is some kind of support in place, whether natural (such as a tree) or artificial. By contrast, creepers would be reliant on help from you to elevate, assuming that you wished them to become airborne. Indeed, many creepers are valued specifically as ground covers, and there is no reason to want them to leave the ground. 

While climbers are often capable of climbing without human intervention, a little bolstering is usually helpful to guide them in a particular direction and give them optimal display value. Moreover, the exact way in which a vine climbs will have a lot to do with what kind of support you give it.

Different Ways Climbers Climb

Some climbing vines are twining types. These "twiners" wind around supports, creating a spiral as they ascend. Examples are:

Twining vines climb most easily if given something straight and narrow to wrap around. Many gardeners anchor string to the ground at the base of a twiner, tying off the other end of the string at the top of a post, thus creating diagonal support for the vine. Saplings can also be harvested from wooded areas for use as support, as long as they are slim enough (diameter of 1 inch or less). Many vegetable gardeners build teepees out of such saplings to assist in growing pole beans.

But twining is not the only mode of ascending for climbers. Others employ tendrils, which are twisting, threadlike structures that reach out from the vine and grasp an object to wrap around for support. Plants with tendrils include:

Fun Fact

Clematis vine is a bit of an oddball. It climbs via the stalks of its new leaves, which act as if they were tendrils. 

Like twining vines, vines with tendrils need support thin enough to climb. Tendrils are not long enough to wrap around something as large as a porch column, for example. Furnish support with a lattice fencechain-link fence, etc.

Still other vines, sometimes dubbed "clinging vines," climb with aerial rootlets or by using holdfasts. A "holdfast" acts as a suction cup.

Clinging vines that climb via aerial rootlets:

Vines that climb by sticking to a surface with holdfasts:

Clinging vines are less fussy about support than are other climbers. They can attach themselves to a variety of surfaces. Whereas a honeysuckle vine craves a slim pole around which to twine and will be stopped dead in its tracks by a brick wall, a Boston ivy will happily scale either.

Warnings, Ideas for Supporting Structures 

Consult these tips when choosing a support structure for your ascending plants:

  • Attractive supports that you can grow climbers on include arborspergolas, and trellises. 
  • If the post of a pergola is too thick for a young, perennial, twining vine to wrap around, you will have to give it some help. The kind of twist-ties that come on bundles of lettuce from the supermarket are helpful for training a vine in this way. Use them to bind the vine to the post. Once the vine has covered the pergola, you can remove them.
  • Like many vines (climbers as well as creepers), trumpet vine can be very troublesome due to its tendency to spread out of control. Unless you do not object to the prospect of having this aggressive vine popping up all over your landscaping, do not grow it. The problems it causes may outweigh the beauty of its blooms. Wisteria (other than the type native to North America), hops, and Hall's honeysuckle are all considered invasive plants in at least some parts of North America. The worst of the lot in this regard may be the twining climber, Oriental bittersweet.
  • Think twice before allowing clinging vines to scale a house wall. They do dress up a wall, but there may be a price to pay. Those aerial rootlets or holdfasts can do damage to a wall (especially if, for whatever reason, you need to remove the vines from the wall someday).
  • A large, woody vine such as wisteria will need strong support when it matures. A sturdy pergola is best. You do not want to throw up a flimsy, hastily-built structure for a young wisteria, only to have the mature version overwhelm it, causing a collapse.