Most gardens need climbers. They can be grown on pergolas, as barrier plants along fences, against buildings to soften walls, to hide unsightly rubble heaps, to cover dead trees or simply lighten up dull areas.
There are many attractive indigenous climbers, adapted to the vagaries of the South African climate, suitable for low maintenance gardens and attractive to birds and local wildlife.
Bauhinia galpinii | Pride of De Kaap. Photo by @ernstvanjaarsveld.
How do climbers climb?
Climbers have weak stems and cannot support themselves so they rely on a host plant to 'lean on'. They put all their energy into lengthening rather than thickening to enable them to overtake their host and gain the advantage. You could say that they parasitize the strength of the stem of the host.
Thunbergia alata | Black-eyed Susan. Photo by @thys_pietersen.
Each climber has a unique climbing method: some twine, others have tendrils which may be modified leaves, stipules or bracts, while some cling with their roots, such as Ficus pumila the well-known exotic tickey-creeper.
The only South African climber with roots anchoring the plant is Urera trinervis (of the stinging nettle family, Urticaceae) from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal forests. Ficus burtt-davyi and Ficus tremula also tend to scramble and anchor with roots. The distinction between a climber and a shrub or tree is not always clear - some species tend to develop a shrubby habit whereas others may form a sturdy stem.
In their natural habitat, some climbers may grow up with their host from a very young age, as can frequently be seen in the Knysna forests where old specimens of Rhoicissus capensis are to be found in the canopies of yellowwoods.
Climbers are often a burden to the host as they smother and may even kill them. Some twiners ring-bark their hosts and this ability to 'bind', according to Palmer and Pitman in their book Trees of southern Africa, is made use of by the Pondo and Zulu in traditional magical practices where parts of a climber known as 'the binder', Acridocarpus natalitius, are placed under the tongue to make another party stupid during court cases.
Climbers need support
In a garden, a support structure like a pergola could be erected for displaying various climbing species. Others can be grown along fences, but when grown on a wall a support framework is necessary. Species can also be mixed in an informal hedge: Podranea, Tecoma, Plumbago and Aloiampelos ciliaris make an interesting combination.
Just be aware that climbers tend to eventually smother shrubs and trees!
Choosing climbers for your garden
Climbers can give a tropical look to gardens, like the highly colourful red flame climber Combretum microphyllum or the pride of De Kaap Bauhinia galpinii, both from the bushveld region. The canary creeper brightens up our eastern forests during autumn with its striking yellow flowers and so too the soft pink Port St John's creeper endemic to Port St John's in the former Transkei.
The smaller succulent species like the Ceropegias are grown for the architectural shapes of their flowers, while some are cherished for their ornamental succulent stems or their graceful leaves like Rhoicissus rhomboidea or Asparagus plumosus both of which are used worldwide as pot plants.
Ceropegia spp. | Lantern flower
Although the climber flora of South Africa is not as diverse as that of the tropics, some local species have made a considerable impact worldwide like Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis), Port St Johns Creeper (Podranea ricasoleana) and Plumbago auriculata with their ornamental flowers and hardy nature.
Tecomaria capensis | Cape honeysuckle
Climbers occur over most of southern Africa, but more commonly along the eastern half of the sub-continent with its subtropical climate.
Climbers are less common in the cooler southern and dry western parts, although many of the eastern species will grow anywhere where frost is not severe.
There are a few species adapted to the arid Karoo regions and these have ornamental succulent storage organs from which the plant produces annual climbing branches.
Some climbers have inconspicuous flowers and are grown more for their foliage like Asparagus plumosus, Asparagus falcatus, Asparagus zuluensis, Rhoicissus tomentosa, Rhoicissus rhomboidea and Petopentia atalensis.
Some species are grown for unusual features such as the large ornamental succulent 'foot' or caudex (swollen stem) found in the elephant's-foot Dioscorea elephantipes.
Dioscorea elephantipes | Elephant's-foot
The wonder plant or Aaron's rod, Tinospora fragosa is a peculiar climber with attractive heart-shaped leaves and a succulent stem. The latter, when detached from the soil, will develop a 'survival root' which grows down and re-roots the plant. It makes an interesting and rewarding window-sill plant that becomes dormant during the winter months.
Other interesting collector's items include Adenia fruticosa, Adenia glauca, Adenia spinosa, Ceropegia, Cissus cactiforme, Cissus quadrangularis, Cissus rotundifolia, Cyphostemma simulans, Cotyledon adscendens and Gerrandanthus macrorhizuz.
To find more climbing plants suited to specific situations or with specific traits browse the collections below!