Trees, shrubs, lianas and herbs have widely different mechanical architectures, which can also vary phenotypically with the environment. This review investigates how environmental effects, particularly mechanical perturbation, can influence biomechanical development in self-supporting and climbing growth forms. The bifacial vascular cambium is discussed in terms of its significance to growth form variation, ecology and evolution among extant plants, and during its appearance and early evolution. A key aspect of this developmental innovation concerned its potential for architectural and mechanical variation in response to environmental effects as well as optimizing hydraulic supply before the appearance of laminate leaves. Growth form diversity and its importance to past and present ecosystems are discussed in relation to both evolutionary constraints and ecological factors such as climatic change and atmospheric CO2 concentrations. We discuss how widely ranging growth forms such as climbers show a large range of developmental and phenotypic variation that has much to offer in understanding how the environment can modify plant development, particularly in terms of the bifacial vascular cambium. The broad approach we propose would benefit a wide range of studies from research into wood development to long-term ecological censuses of today's potentially changing ecosystems.