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The best climbing plants for pergolas and arches

Val Bourne / 29 March 2021

Gardening expert Val Bourne recommends some of the best climbers for pergolas and arches, whether you had a sunny or shady garden.

Wooden pergola with wisteria flowers hanging down
Garden pergolas can be planted with climbers such as wisteria, jasmine and clematis for colour, scent and privacy

Growing plants up a pergola, arch or trellis will add different levels to your garden. Creating different levels in a garden adds a third dimension and that makes the garden look far more interesting. It also allows you to grow a wider range of plants and brings them closer to eye and nose height and this very important when it comes to fragrance.

It’s vital to support the plant with the right structure and ramblers and scramblers need to be pruned, otherwise most will overwhelm a pergola, arch or trellis. Pruning in the correct way will also increase flower power.

Plants on pergolas need to have pliable stems and some of the best, for example wisteria, have pendent flowers that cascade downwards creating a waterfall effect. It’s important to choose the right plant, one that will thrive in the conditions whether it be bright sunshine or dappled shade. Height and vigour also play their part.

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Climbers for shady pergolas – including north-facing

North-facing positions sound very bleak, but they’re often quite benign, because they don’t suffer from extremes of temperature. Plants don’t frazzle in summer and they don’t get subjected to sudden thaws in winter and spring either. Leafy plants, with a woodland provenance, often do well on a shady pergola.

Hedera helix ‘Parsley Crested’ (syn. ‘Cristata’)

This form of self-clinging English ivy has high-gloss, rich-green foliage and each leaf has a ruffled edge. In winter the frills will catch the frost and in summer each ruffle will display a paler, sunlit edge. Extremely useful as a backdrop to hardy ferns, or if you want to create a barrier to cover an unsightly feature. Up to 5m.

Maintenance tip: trim back in spring. If you need to remove self-clinging roots of any sort, cut off at the base, and wait until the foliage browns before pulling off the stems.

Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’

This non-clinging Algerian ivy has large-lobed leaves in a cool, refined mixture of dark-green, sage-green, grey and cream so it’s very good at casting light and shade in a dark space. All Algerian ivies need a sheltered site, because hard winters will cut them back. They will also need supporting on wires, or tying in to a framework. The similar ‘Dentata Variegata’ has brighter foliage with cream-yellow splashes. Both reach 3m.

Maintenance tip: prune lightly in late spring.

Hydrangea petiolaris - climbing hydrangea

Another self-clinger for wooden structures, this climbing deciduous hydrangea has peeling brown bark and attractive green foliage. It will produce white lacecap flowers, even in shade, although it will take a little time to get going and may need supporting in its earlier stages. 10-15m given time. The similar Schizophragma integrifolium needs a warmer position to flower.

Maintenance tip: prune in spring and trim in summer if needed.

Read our recommendations for the best climbing roses for arches and pergolas

The best fragrant climbers for sunny spots

It’s imperative to give fragrant flowers a warm situation so that the nectar flows. Calm places in the garden, out of strong winds, will allow the fragrance to linger.

Trachelospermum jasminiodes - star jasmine

Star jasmine is an evergreen that needs a warm and very sheltered position to thrive, away from cold winds. Given this the glossy green foliage and heavily-scented white starry flowers, which appear in the summer months, add a touch of the exotic. The heady scent packs such a powerful punch. 9m

Maintenance tip: this is worth fleecing in winter. Any pruning should be minimal.

Akebia quinata - chocolate vine

This slow-fuse Asian twiner needs a warm position where the soil will not be disturbed. It’s a strong plant, once it decides to grow, with five leaflets and pendent clusters of three-tepalled ruby-red to chocolate-brown flowers in spring or early summer. These vanilla scented flowers, best seen from below, darken as they age. It’s semi-evergreen in warmer positions, but you will need to frost pockets. 10m / 33ft

Maintenance tip: trim back after flowering if needed.

Azara microphylla - box-leaf azara

One of the mysteries of gardening, because the tiny clusters of yellow stamens smell strongly of vanilla early in the year. This is the hardiest azara of all, but this Chilean plant still needs a warm spot to flourish. After flowering, the small leaves make it look almost cotoneaster-like. ‘Variegata' has cream edges to the tiny green leaves. Both make a perfect winter pick-me-up close to a doorway. 6m/ 20ft

Maintenance tip: tie in during autumn and then leave well alone.

Lonicera etrusca ‘Superba’ - etruscan honeysuckle

When it comes to scented honeysuckles it’s the rhubarb and custard-coloured flowers that bear fragrant, pollinator-friendly flowers. This fragrance intensifies as night falls, because the flowers are designed to be pollinated by moths, so position it near a seat.

Honeysuckles with brighter orange flowers use vivid colour, rather than fragrance, to lure in hummingbirds. This Italian honeysuckle bears golden flowers with a hint of sunset-pink and the foliage is greyer, indicating a need for warm sun. Honeysuckles take their time to get going, but ‘Superba’ lives up to its name.

Maintenance tip: gently trim after flowering, if needed. Never cut honeysuckles down radically. Trim it like a hedge.

Wisteria floribunda (Japanese wisteria)

Wisterias have dangling, fragrant flowers that do well in a sunny spot, coiled around a strong pergola or draping over a garden arch. They're usually a soft lilac colour, but are available in white and pink too. Read our guide to growing and pruning wisteria.

Maintenance tip: prune wisteria twice a year, first in February or March and again in July.

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Climbers and twiners for a a pergola in a hot spot

South-facing walls take the full force of the sun and heat in summer and they offer shelter in winter. Mediterranean and Asian plants, used to a hotter summer climate, can do well here.

Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’ - grape vine

The purple-leaved ornamental vine has downy foliage that darkens to damson-purple in hot summers, so it’s perfect on a pergola or arch close to silver-leaved plants. Grapes will follow, but they’re not too edible. It’s easy and keeps its foliage until October. ‘Incana’, the silver-leaved version, is more demanding on heat and not quite as easily grown. Self-clinging and twining.

Maintenance tip: trim back in late-winter or spring, if needed. 5-7m.

Vitis coignetiae - the crimson glory vine

This leafy self-clinging climber needs a lot of space, so it’s not suitable for small gardens! However, if you’ve room (and very strong supports) this majestic vine will provide bold, lobed foliage and warm autumn colour that glows in shades of orange, gold and russet-red. It will also scramble into trees. More country mansion than country cottage perhaps. Up to 15m / 50ft

Maintenance tip: prune in midwinter.

Campsis x tugliabuana ‘Madame Galen’ -  trumpet vine

This fast-growing climber is hardier than it looks and it will scale pergolas and walls. The clusters of orange-red flowers make late summer glorious. ‘Indian Summer’ has peachy orange flowers. Both do best in warmer summers. 10m.

Maintenance tip: prune in early spring.

Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica

A no-prune, winter-flowering clematis with pale-green pendent bells lightly spotted in maroon-red. The dark ferny foliage is evergreen, although in dry summers this clematis can drop all of its leaves and look a bit scruffy. However it re4covers in autumn. It’s very free-flowering and bee friendly in January – when little else is about. ‘Freckles’ flowers from November onwards and the more-open paler bells are heavily freckled in bright-red. You need to look up to these dangling bells, so train them overhead. 5m

Maintenance tip: lightly tidy after flowering - but only if needed.

Cytisus battandieri - pineapple broom (recently renamed Argyrocytisus battandieri)

This Moroccan legume has lupin-like heads of warm-yellow flowers held above silky grey foliage. It can be a free-standing tree, or it can grace a warm wall or pergola. The pineapple-scented flowers pack more fragrance when grown in a sheltered position in full sun and this is very good in a courtyard. Like all leguminous plants, it prefers poor soil and should not be given nitrogen-rich fertilisers because it fixes its own through root nodules. Up to 4m

Maintenance tip: tie in or remove outward facing branches, because they can snap in autumn and winter gales.

Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’ - potato tree

This fast-growing, semi-evergreen climbing member of the potato family bears clusters of blue flowers with pin-prick yellow middles in June, July and August. It has a long-flowering season and, although it is normally a wall shrub, I have seen it on pergolas. 4m

Maintenance tip: cut back the long growth after flowering.

Climbers for a west-facing pergolas and arches

West walls generally avoid spring frosts and severe summer heat, now more prevalent than ever due to climate change, so they can be very kind. They also tend to benefit from prevailing rainfall in most areas of the country.

Passiflora caerulea - blue passion flower

This traditional blue and white passion flower is one of the easiest to grow and it will produce flowers from early spring until late into the year. Orange egg-shaped fruits follow, although they are not very pleasant to eat. Temperatures need to go lower than -10C for this vigorous climber.

Maintenance tip: mulch the roots to give protection in winter.

Jasminium nudiflorum - winter jasmine

The bright starry, non-fragrant flowers begin to appear in November, so this could be grown on an arch near a winter or spring woodland garden. The new growth is shiny olive-green, so winter jasmine can look wonderful in winter light. It doesn’t twine, but this will form a shrub in times and then it’s possible to tie it to an arch if you plant one on each side.

Maintenance tip: clip back after flowering, to stimulate shiny new growth.

Clematis montana ‘Freda’ - mountain clematis

This May-flowering clematis bears open flowers in shades of white through to pink. This non-prune clematis needs warmth and good drainage to thrive, but it’s very good trained on an arch, or over a porch. ‘Freda’ is more compact than many, with cherry-pink flowers and bronze-tinted foliage. If you can find ‘Van Gogh’ that’s even better. Try Thorncroft Clematis.

Maintenance tip: give it a light trim after flowering, but only if you have to.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.