Climbing Plants of the San Gabriel Mountains

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

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.

How SGM Climbing Plants Climb
Plant GenusCommon NameClimbing MethodPart Used
Toxicodendron diversilobumPoison Oaktwiningstem
Lonicera subspicataHoneysuckletwiningstem
Calystegia macrostegiaMorning Glorytwiningstem
Marah macrocarpusWild Cucumbertendrilsstipule
Cuscuta spp.Doddertwiningstem
Lathyrus vestitusWild Sweet Peatendrilsleaf tip
Vicia spp.Vetchtendrilsleaf tip
Clematis spp.Virgin's Bowertendrilsleaf stalk
Rubus spp.Blackberryscandentprickles
Antirrhinum kelloggiiTwining Snapdragontwiningflower stalk
Keckiella cordifoliaHeart-leaved Penstemonscandentstem
Vitis girdianaDesert Wild Grapetendrilsstipule


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.



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Copyright © 2001-2002 by Jane Strong and Tom Chester.
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Updated 24 August 2002.