Vines are a very noticeable part of the vegetation of the foothills, canyons and slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains: in spring with new bright growth, in summer when dripping from trees and providing shady nooks, and in the fall when full of fluffy seeds, large fruits, or colorful leaves.
What is a Vine? A vine is a trailing or climbing plant sometimes attaching to its support by tendrils. (Definition from The Jepson Manual.)
A true vine is an annual herbaceous climber that grows in disturbed or high-light habitats. Examples of herbaceous vines are wild morning glory and wild cucumber. These vines die back entirely in the fall. Some vines, such as dodder, are parasites lacking chlorophyll and depend on the host plant for their nutrition as well as support.
A liana is a perennial, woody climber that has roots in the shaded, moist forest floor and leaves in the sun. Common lianas in riparian woodlands of southern California are desert wild grape and poison oak. A fine example can be seen in Woodwardia Canyon where poison oak is wrapped around a bigcone spruce snag, which looks like a tall, 60 foot tree with scarlet leaves in the fall. Possibly the poison oak killed the tree; however, most likely a fire killed the tree and the poison oak later grew around the snag.
Scandent plants, such as blackberry (Rubus), have arching or spreading branches that rest on other plants for support.
This short list is derived from plants we have observed in the San Gabriel Mountains or are listed in Bob Muns' Flora of Lower Eaton Canyon or in Dick Swinney's San Dimas Experimental Forest Vascular Plant List - Revised, Updated.
Vines that are exclusively trailers along the ground, such as calabazilla, Cucurbita foetidissima, and those that are commonly found in the garden and around old cabin sites, such as ivy, periwinkle and passionfruit, are excluded.
Major Plant Families with Climbing Vines
- Anacardiaceae, Sumac Family: Toxicodendron diversilobum, Poison Oak
- Caprifoliaceae, Caper Family: Lonicera subspicata, Chaparral Honeysuckle
- Convolvulaceae, Morning Glory Family: Calystegia spp., Wild Morning Glory
- Cucurbitaceae, Cucumber or Gourd Family: Marah macrocarpus, Wild Cucumber
- Cuscutaceae, Dodder Family:
- Cuscuta californica, California Dodder
- Cuscuta subinclusa, Ceanothus or Canyon Dodder
- Cuscuta sp., other dodder species
- Fabaceae, Pea or Legume Family:
- Lathyrus vestitus, Wild Sweet Pea
- Vicia americana, American Vetch
- Vicia ludoviciana, Slender Vetch
- Vicia villosa, Hairy or Winter Vetch
- Ranunculaceae, Buttercup Family
- Clematis lasiantha, Virgin's Bower
- Clematis ligusticifolia Western Virgin's Bower
- Clematis pauciflora, Small-flowered or Southern Clematis
- Rosaceae, Rose Family
- Rubus discolor, Himalaya Blackberry
- Rubus ursinus, California Blackberry
- Scrophulariaceae, Snapdragon Family
- Antirrhinum kelloggii, Twining Snapdragon
- Keckiella cordifolia, Heart-leaved Penstemon
- Vitaceae, Grape Family: Vitis girdiana, Desert Wild Grape
Why Plants Climb
Climbers evolved as plants that pushed upwards through the forest or shrubby undergrowth towards the light to find their place in the sun where few other plants can compete. These plants flower in the light, at the top of the plant, with long, leggy growths below.
Most climbers are fast growing. Their long, slender, flexible trunk, mostly made up of water conducting tissues, must find support before the leaves form and the plant becomes heavy. The vines borrow the strong woody trunks of the forest trees to support the weight of their leaves and stems. To hitch a free ride to the sun the vines have a number of adaptations for climbing.
Types of Vines
On the basis of their growth habits, vines may be divided into two types--clamberers and climbers.
Clamberers lack any holdfasts--the structures that allow the plant to cling to objects--and merely scramble or trail over surrounding vegetation, debris, or bare ground.
These plants are also described as scandent, plants that throw themselves over other plants and thus are able to climb out above the undergrowth into the light.
They sometimes use hooks, spines or prickles that attach to the host. Blackberry is an example of a plant using this method.
Kinds of Climbing Vines
Climbing vines are of three major different types according to their method of climbing: by tendrils, twining or clinging.
- Tendrils are slender, coiling structures (generally stems, stipules, or leaf tips) that wrap themselves around anything they contact. The grape is probably the best known vine that climbs by means of tendrils.
A tendril is sensitive to contact. When it brushes against an object, it turns toward it and, when possible, wraps around it. A strong tissue then develops in the tendrils, rendering them strong enough to support the weight of the plant.
Tendril climbers are specially modified organs that grasp the host or support. The tendril clings to smaller objects than twining climbers, such as the wire netting on your fence or a twig on a host plant. The central stem then grows upwards, developing more tendrils to better establish an anchor to the support.
Tendril climbers fall into three groups.
- Stem tendrils grasp the host as the stem lengthens and the twining action will bring the plant close against the host. These tendrils are often 'spring-loaded' and sensitive to touch as in wild cucumber.
- Leaf tendrils are a modification of the leaflets of compound leaves, the most common example being a wild sweet pea, where the terminal leaflets are modified into tendrils.
- A third type has no tendril but the leaf stem (or petiole) twines about and clings to the host - the most well known example being virgin's bower or clematis.
- Twining vines wind their stems around any available support. Curiously twiners twine in a direction that is specific to each species, either clockwise or anti-clockwise as viewed from below. The growing tips of twining plants make a wide circle to increase the chances of making contact with a potential support. The higher a twining climber goes, the more closely it holds its support. Wild morning glory is an example.
- Clinging vines climb by
- tendrils with disklike adhesive tips that attach themselves to any surface
- small aerial rootlets along the stems that attach themselves into crevices of a rough-textured surface
We don't know of any local native examples of this kind. Ivy is non-native example.
How SGM Climbing Plants Climb Plant Genus Common Name Climbing Method Part Used Toxicodendron diversilobum Poison Oak twining stem Lonicera subspicata Honeysuckle twining stem Calystegia macrostegia Morning Glory twining stem Marah macrocarpus Wild Cucumber tendrils stipule Cuscuta spp. Dodder twining stem Lathyrus vestitus Wild Sweet Pea tendrils leaf tip Vicia spp. Vetch tendrils leaf tip Clematis spp. Virgin's Bower tendrils leaf stalk Rubus spp. Blackberry scandent prickles Antirrhinum kelloggii Twining Snapdragon twining flower stalk Keckiella cordifolia Heart-leaved Penstemon scandent stem Vitis girdiana Desert Wild Grape tendrils stipule
1. Stems are orange. Dodder.
1'. Stems are not orange. Go to 2.
2. Leaves are simple [a single leaf per stem]. Go to 3.
2'. Leaves are compound. Go to 8.
3. Leaves are palmate [like a maple leaf]. Go to 4.
3'. Leaves are not palmate. Go to 5.
4. Fruit is large, green and spiny. Wild cucumber.
4'. Fruit is small, dark and clustered. Desert wild grape.
5. Leaves are paired. Go to 6.
5'. Leaves are not paired. Go to 7.
6. Leaves evergreen, thick and leathery. Chaparral honeysuckle.
6'. Leaves soft, sharply pointed [heart-shaped] and toothed near the tip. Heart-leaved penstemon.
7. Flower stem very long and thread-like. Twining snapdragon.
7'. Flower white and funnel-shaped. Wild morning glory.
8. Leaf tip ends in a tendril. Go to 9.
8'. Leaf tip does not end in a tendril. Go to 10.
9. Flowers generally small, purple and crowded on one side of the stem. Vetch.
9'. Flowers generally large, multi-colored on the same stalk, banner rose-veined. Wild sweet pea.
10. Stem has prickles. Blackberry.
10'. Stem smooth. Go to 11.
11. Leaves shiny green or scarlet red in fall. Poison oak.
11'. At least some leaves with more than 3 leaflets. Clematis.
- Poison oak provides some of the prettiest fall color in our mountains. It also gives one of the nastiest skin rashes. So look, but don't touch!
It grows best in shaded, moist places.
- Shiny green leaves in spring; the middle of the three leaflets has a long stem [petiole]
- Berries in summer
- Twining around a tree for support
- Beautiful fall color
- More color; it doesn't always climb, sometimes it just makes thickets
- White berries in winter on naked stems; difficult to recognize this as poison oak; leave the white berries for the birds!
- Excellent web page on poison oak
- Wild cucumber is one of the first plants to produce new growth in the spring. This is because it is not dependent on spring rains to begin growing, drawing its energy and moisture from a thick underground root. You can often see the leafless green stems and undulating tendrils in the leaf litter on the side of a shady trail.
These green ropes are soon followed by small, star-shaped, white flowers blooming on a stalk. Like all members of the squash or gourd family, wild cucumber has two kinds of flowers, male and female. The female flower is found sitting atop a fuzzy green ball at the base of the stalk. The fruit later matures to an oblong green capsule covered with spines, like an imaginary porcupine egg. When the spiny fruits of wild cucumber are mature, they suddenly split open with an audible cracking sound! You can often find old ones with only the inside skeletons remaining under trees in winter.
Wild cucumber is also called chilicothe or manroot. It grows on slopes in sun or shade.
- Fruit and flowers
- Tendril coiled and uncoiled
- Stem (vine)
- Female flower
- Wild And Squirting Cucumbers
- Manroot (human-sized root)
- Desert Wild Grape grows in canyon bottoms where there is ample moisture. It is distinguished from California wild grape, Vitis californica, by fruit color. Desert Wild Grape is black. Monrovia Canyon Park has a very nice, large specimen.
- Three species of wild grape form a biogeographical pattern that parallels that of the alligator lizards
- Pictures of grapes in fall and of slip-skin fruit
- Chaparral Honeysuckle has a little surprise for early spring hikers. What appears to be a fat rose-purple bud is, in fact, an insect gall. The true buds don't appear until much later in April. They look like those of the garden variety of honeysuckle. Other than that, the plant can be identified by well-spaced, paired leaves on a long stem. The berries in fall are an attractive, bright translucent red. Chaparral honeysuckle is abundant everywhere, but not conspicuous.
- Dodder is unmistakeable: it looks like bright orange spaghetti strewn over shrubbery. It is a leafless parasitic vine. However, under close observation, dodder does have minute white flowers visible for a brief period just as the vines begin to die.
Dodder begins life as a seedling. When the thread-like seedling stem encounters a host plant it twines around it, then produces haustoria, small knob-like structures that insert themselves in the host and take food from it for the dodder. Sometimes the first host plant is a ground-growing filaree, then later a taller buckwheat. Amazingly, a single dodder plant can readily grow a total length of stem greater than a half mile! The stem coming from the ground dries up after food is obtained from the host.
Dodder has many interesting names: angel's hair, witch's hair, tangle gut, strangle gut, devil's gut, love vine, witch's shoelaces, strangle weed, golden thread, devil's hair.
- Completely hiding the shrubbery
- Read About Dodder and pictures of Witch's Hair
- More information and source of some of the names
- More slides
- Wild Morning Glory is similar to field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, a non-native weed. However, the funnel-shaped flower of the native morning glory is slightly larger and sometimes with purple stripes on the backs of the petals. The morning glory leaf is longer, thinner, with more obtuse angles, almost lobed. It begins to bloom much earlier than bindweed. There is a lovely pink flowered variety that grows in the more coastal areas.
Wild morning glory is particularly abundant after disturbances such as fires. In Spring 2001, the burned area on the north side of the 210 Freeway at the La Tuna Canyon exit was dotted all over with blooming wild morning glories.
- Full plant showing leaf and stem
- Twining on another plant
- Native Morning Glories in California
- Wild Sweet Pea has a beautiful habit of changing color as it ages. Sometimes the flowers on the stalk start white, change to purple, then fade to gold, whereas on other plants the flowers are always purple.
- Flower, another color, yet a different color
- Showing leaves and tendrils
- Many pictures of wild sweet pea regrowth after a burn
- Vetch is similar to wild sweet pea, but the flowers are smaller, purple and on one side of the stalk only.
- American Vetch has 4-9 [3-9] flowers per stalk and 4-8 [8-16] paired leaflets per leaf, American Vetch (Vicia americana), locally, closeup and stem
- Slender Vetch has 1-3 flowers per stalk and 4-10 paired leaflets per leaf, showing tendril and flowers, a narrative in journal form with pictures
- Hairy or Winter Vetch is hairy all over and has 10 to many crowded flowers per stalk and 8-12 [12-18] paired leaflets per leaf, flower, flower is deeper purple, and everything else
- Twining Snapdragon
- Another view showing twining petioles
- Showing how it got its other common name, lax snapdragon
- Discussed as a fire follower
- Heart-leaved Penstemon has a somewhat (superficially) similar appearance to chaparral honeysuckle having paired leaves well-spaced on a stem without tendrils. This climbing penstemon is scandent, that is, it grows up through shrubs without attachments, without twining.
Heart-leaved Penstemon has leaves that turn golden yellow, then bright burgundy red in the fall. The leaves remain on the plant for a long time and you can often see them spilling over the trails or roadsides bringing color in the mid elevations of the mountains.
- Why are the flowers often upside down?
- Flowers, stem, leaves, and seed capsules
- More flowers and leaves
- Virgin's Bower has 3-7 leaflets, depending on the species, and potentially could be confused with poison oak if you see only the leaves with 3 leaflets. However, Virgin's Bower usually has more stem between the leaves, and never takes on the shrubby appearance that poison oak usually has. Of course, the flowers or showy seeds immediately separate it from poison oak over most of the year. Although the flowers are attractive in spring, it is magnificent, sometimes awesome, in the fall when the sun glistens through the fluffy transparent seed plumes.
Virgin's Bower grows on slopes up to six thousand feet. We've seen it on the Mt. Lowe Trail, and on the Manzanita Trail.
- Clematis lasiantha, also called Chaparral Virgin's Bower or Pipe-Stem Virgin's Bower, Pipe-stem or Chaparral Clematis, and here called just Virgin's Bower
- Clematis ligusticifolia has clustered flowers, whereas C. lasiantha does not; stem and flowers, also known as Western Clematis, showing twining and seeds
- Clematis pauciflora, Southern California, small-flowered or small-leaf clematis or Virgin's Bower; uncommon
- Blackberry is yet another climber with three leaflets. Here is picture showing poison oak and blackberry together, both have three leaflets, but poison oak is shiny and the stem is not prickly.
- Himalaya Blackberry can be seen on on the south side of Angeles Crest Highway, SR2 just west Cortelyou Springs in the Islip area.
- California Blackberry grows in moist, shaded canyon bottoms like Millard and Icehouse.
- The Jepson Manual, Higher Plants of California edited by James C. Hickman, University of California Press, 1993
- Flora of Lower Eaton Canyon, Bob Muns
- Selecting Landscape Plants: Ornamental Vines has drawings of all four types of vines
- Gardener's Botany How and Why Plants Climb
- Compton's Encyclopedia Online v3.0 Vines
- What they did not say in the Simpsons' episode on Australian toilets: The Coriolis effect and plant growth
- Investigating Rainforests
- Climbing plants
Go to: Plants of the San Gabriel Mountains
Copyright © 2001-2002 by Jane Strong and Tom Chester.
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to us at this source:
Comments and feedback: Jane Strong | Tom Chester
Updated 24 August 2002.