Animating large numbers of empties along a path


I’m animating plant tendrils to grow along curves.

I am using a spline IK rig to control the tendril. The tendril rig is carried along the curve it grows along by a string of empties, that all need to be rigged and animated individually.

I feel like I’m doing something unnecessarily complicated - I will ultimately need to rig and animate 50-100 empties to complete the movement I’m aiming for if I keep animating in this fashion.

In case you need to see it to understand better, a Blend file with my first trial attempt is here:
Currently you need to play it backwards for it to “grow”.

Any thoughts on how I can streamline this process? Is there a better technique for this kind of movement I’m missing? I thought about the Curve modifier but it seems to only work along one axis, and the tendrils need to curl around other plants.

Thanks for any help!

Update: just managed to use stacked lattice modifiers to achieve a three-dimensional twisting along a path effect in two seconds flat! Have less control and it’s a bit harder to achieve tight turns, but it works.