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There are differences botanical differences between trailing and climbing plants, but most of the plants we come across in the house plant hobby are natural climbers that can trail – they’d just prefer to climb.
Is there a difference between trailing and climbing plants?
Climbers usually have some sort of appendage (ugh, hate that word) that allows them to grip onto whatever they’re climbing (usually a tree, but it could be a wall or a particularly still giraffe).
A lot of plants have aerial roots but they could also have tendrils or hooks that help them attach (like peas).
Trailing plants don’t usually have anything to grip with – they just hang there. The one that always springs to mind when I think of trailing plants are chain of hearts – they trail naturally, and you’d have a job getting them to climb anything.
There are some plants that are perfectly happy with trailing or climbing, for example, Hoya. Hoya linearis definitely trail.
Other Hoya, such as Hoya pubicalyx, are happy to vine around a trellis (making them a good non-toxic climbing option) or climb up a tree, like this Hoya Kerrii.
Can you use trailing plants as climbing plants?
You can, but getting plants that want to trail to climb is literally like fighting gravity.
People commonly grow climbing plants as trailing plants, such as Pothos, Monstera adansonii, and Rhaphidophora Tetrasperma BUT the plants will struggle to reach their full potential if you grow them this way.
A lot of climbing plants will do very well if they’re grown vertically up, rather than allowed to hang. If they’re growing up, they assume they’re growing towards the sun (shh, don’t tell them about ceilings) and will start producing bigger leaves.
If they’re allowed to trail then they assume they’re getting less sun and the new growth will be significantly smaller and the internodal spacing (the space between the nodes) will get bigger, and you’ll end up with a leggy plant.
How to grow full trailing plants
The problem with trailing plants is they tend to get a bit…stringy. Especially indoors. The best way to get them to be full and luscious is to keep chopping and propping until you have the desired fullness.
In order to grow your plants really long, then you need to be giving them great care. Make sure you’re watering well – most trailing plants like to dry out a bit between waterings – not too often, but also don’t underwater either.
Lighting requirements can be a bit of a learning curve with trailing plants, since they usually come from tropical rainforests that have bright but dappled light. If you have no idea what type of light you need (or can provide) then start out with it in an east-facing window (west in the southern hemisphere).
If it’s growing, leave it there, if not, move it to a south-facing window. If it goes wild in a south-facing window, see how it does in a west-facing window.
A lot of trailing plants also appreciate higher humidity, so a humidifier is a great option. Not only will this keep the leaves in great condition and make the plant grow faster, but it’ll stop the stems from being as brittle.
The main reason my chain of hearts was so short and full was I kept having to propagate the bits that snapped off.
Nutrients are also important, so make sure you’re fertilising regularly. I’m lazy so I tend to stick with feeds every six weeks.
How to support climbing plants
You have a few options:
- Moss pole
- A wall
- A plank of wood
It’s entirely up to you. You just need to find something that you:
a) like and
b) can maintain (no point getting a moss pole if you’re just going to let it dry out).
If you’re having trouble deciding between the various options for climbing supports for plants, I have an article dedicated to it here.
Convincing a climbing plant to trail
I know it’s annoying when you have a climbing plant that you want to be a trailing plant, but plants grow how they want, and climbing plants want to climb.
If you do have a full climbing plant that you keep in a hanging pot and you would like it to hang, there are a few things you can try to stop it from getting leggy.
- Light it from below
I’m afraid I have no idea how you’d light it from below…grow light on the floor perhaps?? but giving it a bright light source should stop the leaves from getting all runty and sad.
- Put it in a bright, full-length window
The leaves still won’t get as big as they would if it were growing up, but this should at least stop the long internodal spacing and sparse look.
- Good care
The usual – keep the leaves clean, water it well, feed it regularly, yada yada yada.
High humidity can be a bit of a gamechanger here because it can encourage the nodes to activate the axillary bud and start another growth point, therefore making your plant fuller.
I like to bottom water my hanging plants, because if I try to water them from the top I end up trying to do it without moving them (because I'm an idiot) and end up with water on the floor. I only have three hanging plants, and this is why.
I have a hoya bella, which is happy to hang, plus a Philodendron brasil and a Tradescantia nanouk. I keep the Tradescantia short by chopping and propping, and I’m currently propping my brasils (read about that here – I did an experiment on how to root them quickly #science)
The brasil still doesn’t like to hang. She was SUPER full when I got here, and I suspect they grow them vertically in the nursery and put them in hanging plants to sell them. There’s about seven vines in there, and there’s gonna be a load more.
Climbing plants climb and hanging plants hang and there isn’t really a lot you can do to change their mind. Plants have no mind for the aesthetic we’re going for. Whilst my general advice is to buy plant that will naturally grow in the way you want it to (so a hanging plant in a hanging pot) you can have a lot of fun (you know, relatively speaking. Quiet fun!) trying out new things.
Don’t sleep on high humidity. It can makes plants put out SO MUCH growth, and reduces the frequency you have to water. Win win!
Also, today is my birthday, so this has been scheduled in advance. And since my birthday is on bank holiday Monday, we can assume I’m VERY hungover right now. And probs full of crisps.