Anatomy of Creeping Plants

Creeping plants can provide luxurious beauty in your landscape and then be plucked to do double duty in the kitchen.


Three creeping thymes with varying leaf colors form beautiful green mortar between the cracks of a stone walkway.

Photo By Barbara Pleasant

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Creeping Plants: Trailing Herbs

Maybe due to a dose of Scots-Irish heritage in my background, I love plants that pay huge dividends with thrifty effort on my part. This appreciation for economy of motion draws me irresistibly to the creeping and trailing herbs.

If you choose varieties carefully, the creepers can provide luxurious beauty in your landscape and then be plucked to do double duty in the kitchen or for crafts. For example, I planted sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) in a hard-to-tend shady area by my garage wall, and it filled the spot willingly with sharp green leaves that frame tiny white blossoms in May. I use fresh sprigs to flavor glasses of cold cider in the spring; later I dry great handfuls to add a vanilla scent to the cedar chips I use in my dog’s bed. In a spot of poor soil near my driveway, an ankle-high carpet of caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona) becomes a puddle of tiny pink blossoms in spring. From spring to fall, I use the sprigs to flavor stews and rice dishes, or sauté a few stems in butter to brush over steamed sweet corn.

Here I must confess that despite my devotion to creeping herbs, their modes of travel remain mysterious to me. Rose Marie Nichols McGee, co-owner of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon, explains that herbs may creep in different ways. Some, such as my sweet woodruff and creeping thyme, spread by sending out prostrate roots. “Where the root attaches to the ground, it sends up an upright leaf bud,” she says. Because it takes more of an herb’s energy to produce leaves than stems, creepers with longer stem segments spread faster. Those that send up shoots in close proximity, such as Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) and some creeping thymes, grow slower, but form a dense mat that’s perfect grown between pavers on a garden walk.

Instead of using wandering roots, a few herbs, such as trailing rosemary, root from ground-hugging branches. “If there’s plenty of moisture, the stems will root and send off shoots where they touch the soil,” Nichols McGee says. If the stem roots dry out, they simply stop growing. With or without stem roots to anchor them, trailing rosemary varieties such as ‘Huntington Carpet’ look luxurious draping over the sides of a hanging basket, or you can tie them to a frame of bent copper tubing for a decorative accent in the garden or a container. Other herbs that can be handled this way include ‘Kent Beauty’ oregano (Origanum rotundifolilum ‘Kent Beauty’), climbing nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and some types of mint (Mentha spp.).

Thymes are probably the most popular creeping herb, and for good reason. “They’re very adaptable plants as long as they have good drainage. They don’t have heavy water requirements and they’re easy to divide by the roots,” Nichols McGee says. Thymes prefer sun but can make do with as little as four hours a day, and most are hardy to Zone 5. “The top growth loves sun but the roots love to be cool, so you can slip the root beneath the moist soil of a paver,” Nichols McGee says. Then simply fill the crevices with sand.

Beyond thymes or creeping rosemary for well-drained sun, and sweet woodruff for moist shade, try letting wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) thread its way between large shrubs or trees. A native woody perennial hardy to Zone 4, with shiny, dark-green leaves that blush red in winter, wintergreen produces pinkish-white flowers first thing in spring, followed by red berries in autumn. It needs acidic soil and often does better in a woodland garden than an herb plot, but the year-round pleasure found in crushing the crisp leaves before adding them to juice or tea make wintergreen a valuable asset. —ROSE R. KENNEDY

Creeping Plants: Climbing Vines

Gardening in a small space certainly makes you appreciate plants that grow up rather than out. Climbing vines are fun to watch, too, often seeming as if they’re thinking their way to their next mooring.

I remember as a new gardener trying to force a morning glory to twist itself up a stick counterclockwise, only to discover the next day that it had changed direction. I quickly learned that twining vines have minds of their own. Like most twiners, morning glories will only twist in a clockwise direction. Honeysuckles, on the other hand, are determined to twist to the left. Regardless of their preferred direction, twining vines stage a constant drama as new shoots circle about until they find a place to land, and then hang on with the tenacity of a trapeze artist.

Tendril climbers are fun to watch, too, and when I discovered that the young tendrils of snow peas were edible, they became the perfect vertical accent for my spring cilantro. The curling tendrils of peas actually are modified leaves, which explains the edibility—and delicate nature—of tender young snow pea tendrils. Bigger vines that hold themselves in place with tendrils, such as passionflower (Passiflora spp.), develop tougher tendrils that are modified stems. It’s as though the plants know that when they are laden with egg-sized fruits, they will need well-muscled tendrils to keep them high and dry.

The pretty hops vines (Humulus lupulus) that bear fragrant cones used for brewing beer or making sleep pillows get where they want to go on a fence or trellis by twining and by holding onto their support with hooked hairs. More so than other vines, hops cling best to coarse string that they can sink their hooked hairs into, such as baling twine. Hops often become so lush that you can’t see their little grippers, but you will feel them if you gather cones from female plants without wearing protective gloves. Many people grow the ‘Aureus’ variety for its lime-green leaves, but beer-making varieties produce the most fragrant flowers. When the vines die back in winter, the stems of any type of hop make a great stand-in for grapevines if you like to make rustic baskets or wreaths.

Clematis vines (Clematis spp.), often called the queen of climbers because of its beautiful flowers, employs yet another climbing strategy. The leaf stems, or petioles, of clematis curve around whatever support they can find, which is how they do such a good job of arranging themselves among the branches of shrubs or small trees. With only a little help from a guide stick, my pink clematis does a lively duet with a little peach tree I grew from a seed.

The clingiest of all vines are those that anchor themselves with sucker-like feet, more properly known as holdfast roots. Therein lies the danger of allowing English ivy or Virginia creeper to attach itself to the woodwork of your house. The holdfast roots retain moisture, creating the perfect environment for mildew. And like most other vines, ivies and Virginia creeper tend to become more top-heavy the higher they climb, and top-heavy vines are more prone to topple—or crush their support—than less robust vines that know when to stop.

You can grow vines with holdfast roots up a wall or fence if you’re willing to prune them once or twice a year, or you can use them as a vigorous groundcover in shady sites. These vines are much better behaved when confined to the ground, where they often are willing to grow in spots too shady for grass or even other shade-tolerant herbs, such as sweet woodruff. And even though old herbals suggest that you can drink excessive amounts of alcohol and not get drunk if you wear a crown of ivy on your head, or cure dysentery with a tincture made from Virginia creeper tea, neither tradition is likely to be effective nor safe.

Finally, many long-limbed roses are called climbers, but the best they can do in terms of holding themselves up is to sometimes hook onto nearby plants with their thorns. Even super-prickly rugosa roses (the types that bear the biggest berries, or hips) need to be tied to a fence or trellis, or you can keep them pruned into stocky bushes. Deliciously fragrant old damask roses usually feature a mixed bag of thorns — big hooked ones that resemble talons and numerous smaller prickles. Both are effective for discouraging nibbling animals, but of little use for actual climbing.

Why not have it all? Creeping thymes often are used as groundcovers near the base of roses, and taller vines can be partnered with a skirt of sweet woodruff or wintergreen. Creepers and climbers are intriguing plants when grown by themselves, and even more alluring when grown together as a team. —BARBARA PLEASANT

ROSE R. KENNEDY enjoys gardening with herbs in Knoxville, Tennessee, just over the Blue Ridge from BARBARA PLEASANT, who lives in the mountains of western North Carolina.