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Power of Movement: Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants

Darwin began studying climbing plants after reading an 1858 paper on “the coiling of tendrils” by his botanist-friend Asa Gray at Harvard. This ultimately led him to exhaustive studies in plant movements. Because, he wrote, “it was impossible to account for climbing plants having been developed in so many different groups, unless all kinds of plants possessed some slight power of movement of an analogous kind.”


The Power of Movement of Plants In Darwin’s final plant book, Power of Movement in Plants, he concluded that the leaves, stems, branches, and roots of so many plants move that all plants must “move in a circle” over long periods of time. He grandly referred to this as circumnutation. The vining habit found in many plant groups evolved from this power of movement already inherent in the plant body.

Darwin's circumnutation apparatus Darwin devised a simple apparatus for studying circumnutation:

  1. A glass needle was glued to a plant shoot.
  2. Black wax was put on the end of this needle.
  3. A card with a black dot on it was set beneath the needle.
  4. A glass sheet was set up above the plant.
    Darwin marked the glass with an ink dot so that it, the dot on the card, and the black wax blob were all in line.
  5. Later, he recorded the movement of the shoot tip.

Drawing by Keith Roberts from Darwin and his Flowers by Mea Allen, 1977.

The vining habit evolved in many plant groups – obviously to obtain light and/or support. The power of movement already inherent in the plant body made possible this adaptation. He looked at plants that twine their shoots around objects or just clamber over other plants first. Hops, wisterias, morning glories, hoyas, and thunbergias interested him in this category.
Ipomoea hederacea - Nikolaus J. Jacquin Humulus lupulus - Walter Muller Thunbergia alata - Frederick William Smith
Hand-colored engraving of a morning glory (Ipomoea hederacea) by Nikolaus J. Jacquin (c. 1781-1793) Color lithograph of hops (Humulus lupulus) by Walter Muller, from Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen, 1887. Colored engraving of Thunbergia alata by Frederick William Smith, 1836.

Darwin wrote of the leaf-climbers (here Clematis vitalba) that “in winter, the blades of the leaves of C. vitalba drop off; but the petioles…remain attached to the branches, sometimes during two seasons; and, being convoluted, they curiously resemble true tendrils” (p. 60). In the genus of our annual Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum), are many perennial species that Darwin studied. He concluded the power of clasping with leaf petioles varied from those that “rapidly revolve and spirally twine up a support” to those with “very feeble revolving powers” or those that “never acquired these faculties.”

Clematis alpina - Elsa Felsko Note leafless petioles on Clematis alpina.


Print of a watercolor by Elsa Felsko, 1954.

Tropaeolum pentaphyllum - J. McNab Tropaeolum pentaphyllum exhibits remarkable “clasping petioles.” Darwin records its petioles curving in as little as 6 minutes “after a slight rub” and that after removing a clasped stick from the petiole “it is not able…to straighten itself.”

Hand-colored engraving by J. McNab from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1832.

True tendrils occur in many plant families. Three that Darwin devoted much time to include Vitaceae (grapes), Passifloraceae (passion flowers), and Cucurbitaceae (melons, cucumbers, e.g.).

Benincasa hispida - F. Martinez Tendrils are modified leaves, stipules, or branches in the Cucurbitaceae. The Chinese preserving melon is one such family member from Asia.

Benincasa hispida. Chromolithograph by F. Martinez, from Flora de Filipinas, Francisco Manuel Blanco, 877-80.

Darwin mentions the tendrils in both Vitaceae and Passifloraceae are modified flower peduncles.Greenbriars (species of Smilax) have paired tendrils arising from leaf petioles. The pair works together clasping a stem to climb up trees or shrubs to the light.
Wild grapes - Brender à Brandis Passiflora incarnata-Nikolaus J. Jacquin Smilax_medica - Walter Muller
Wild grapes (Vitis species).

Wood engraving by Gerard Brender à Brandis, 2000.

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).

Colored engraving by Nikolaus J. Jacquin, c. 1781-1793.

Similax medica.

Colored lithograph by Walter Muller from Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen, 1887.


Darwin - Porcelain vine

Darwin shows the unattached tendril of the Porcelain Vine (Ampelopsis) and one after several weeks attached to a wall. Note the discs at the extremities – woody tissue formed after a secreted viscid fluid helped hold them to the wall.


Illustration by Charles Darwin from The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants, 1865.

Hedera helix - K. Grossmann

Ivy showing Rootlets, flowers, and fruits on stems of the common ivy (Hedera helix) produce a similar disc-like object – for attaching to walls, for example.


Reproduction of a colored print by K.Grossmann in Mitteleuropäische Pflanzenwelt by R. Kräusel, 1956-60.

Next – Power of Movement: Insectiverous Plants
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