Anatomy of Creeping Plants

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Three creeping thymes with varying leaf colors form beautiful green mortar between the cracks of a stone walkway.
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A pretty pink clematis vine has no trouble climbing a slender ladder made of sticks to its home in a seedling peach tree.
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The stems of honeysuckles always turn counterclockwise.
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The new shoots of twining vines, like this honeysuckle, circle about until they find a place to land, then hang on with the tenacity of a trapeze artist.
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Passionflowers cling to support with curling tendrils, and the stems do a little twining, too.

Most herbs grow as bushy little upright plants,
but a few develop into ground-hugging carpets or ambitious growers
that reach for the sky. Here two herb lovers share their
fascination with trailing herbs and other useful creeping plants that like to grow
outside the box.

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
) 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

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

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

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.

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