What's the Difference Between Climbers and Creepers?

And Examples of Climbing Plants

Boston ivy picture. A vine, Boston ivy is commonly found scaling walls.
Picture: Boston ivy adorning a wall. David Beaulieu

Vine plants can be subdivided into the general categories of climbers and creepers. "Climbers" are plants that climb on their own (as long as there is some kind of support in place, whether natural -- such as a tree -- or artificial), without human intervention (although a little human help is often provided to guide them in a particular direction). By contrast, "creepers" would be totally reliant on help from you to elevate -- assuming that you wished them to become airborne, at all.

Indeed, many creepers are valued specifically as ground covers, and there is no reason to want them to leave the ground. 

The Different Ways Climbers Climb

Some climbing vines are twining types; these "twiners" wind their way around supports. Examples are:

  1. Wisteria
  2. Hops
  3. Kiwi vines
  4. Hall's honeysuckle
  5. Dutchman's pipe

But twining is not the only mode of climbing for climbers. Others, sometimes dubbed "clinging vines," climb by using tendrils or other plant parts, such as the adventitious roots known as "holdfasts." Here are some examples:

  • Sweet pea vines use tendrils
  • Clematis (for example, Jackman clematis) climbs via leaflet tendrils
  • The related vines, Boston ivy and Virginia creeper ascend via holdfasts (note that the "creeper" in the latter's common name is a misnomer)

Choices for Supporting Structures (and Three Warnings)

Artificial supports to which climbers attach themselves include arbors, pergolas, garden teepees, trellises, and even porch columns.

Vines are also often planted such that a nearby fence or lattice structure serves as support. Climbers with holdfasts are less fussy about support than are other vines; 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 masonry wall, a Boston ivy will happily scale either.

The climbers that use holdfasts may be familiar to you as being those vines that scale the exterior walls of old brick buildings (think "Ivy League colleges"). English ivy can be used for this purpose. But another vine with holdfasts is one of the flowering vines, offering a display that ivy does not: namely, climbing hydrangeaTrumpet vine is another lovely flowering vine that can scale walls via holdfasts. 

Vines can furnish the landscape with great interest and beauty, but a few warnings are in order:

  1. Like many vines (climbers as well as creepers), trumpet vine can be very troublesome due to its tendency to spread. Unless you do not object to the prospect of having this aggressive vine popping up all over your landscaping, I do not recommend growing 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.
  2. Speaking of problems in connection with vines, think twice before allowing one of the climbers with holdfasts to scale a house wall. Sure, the image of a wall draped in a viny curtain may enthrall you. But there may be a price to pay: those adventitious roots can do damage to a wall (especially if, for whatever reason, you need to remove the vines from the wall someday).
  1. A large, woody vine such as wisteria really needs strong support. I suggest a sturdy pergola. 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.

Your Next Step

Do you need help selecting a climber to add to your landscaping? Browse my pictures of vines for ideas.