Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is an exuberant native vine that doesn't know the meaning of the word "stop." It can reach as much as 60 feet, either heading up a tree, wall or other support, or trailing on the ground (hence the name creeper).
Also called woodbine, the vine is loved for its glorious fall color. Rich and vivid, the leaves turn gold, orange, red and purple. The fruit is bluish-purple and look like small grapes. Birds love them, which is why the vine spreads so efficiently.
Photograph by IKA1, Wikimedia Commons
A member of the grape (Vitaceae) family, Virginia creeper is a perennial, deciduous, woody vine. It climbs using sticky tendrils, also called disks or holdfasts. They don't damage masonry like ivy does, but pulling the vine off a surface will break the tendrils, leaving pieces which are difficult to remove.
Virginia creeper is often confused with poison ivy, but its leaves have five leaflets, while poison ivy has three. It's easier to tell the difference summer through fall, but the two are especially confusing in spring, since the emerging leaves of both vines are red, and before the leaves completely unfurl, it's tough to know how many leaflets there are. The leaves can be up to six inches long.
It blooms in May and June but the white flowers are inconspicuous.
Abundant green leaves in summer make it a good screening plant. It looks fabulous growing up against a wall or fence, especially a north-facing one, where it's brilliant red fall color brightens what is otherwise a gloomy spot. It doesn't need to be supported the way climbing roses or clematis do, which is a plus. It makes a good planting for slopes as it helps control soil erosion.
Virginia creeper grows from Quebec down to Florida, and west to Texas and Utah, and is hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 11. It grows in full sun to full shade. It is not fussy about soil type, though it is partial to acidic, moist soil. It's also deer resistant and salt-tolerant.
Chickadees, nuthatches, mockingbirds and catbirds, plus many other birds, eat the berries. It's a host plant for a variety of sphinx moth caterpillars.
This is a vine that needs regular spring pruning or it will take over. While not parasitic, if it grows on a tree or shrub it can eventually overwhelm and kill it, because its foliage shades out the leaves of its host.
The berries of Virginia creeper contain oxalic acid and can be fatal to humans if eaten, and the vine can cause a mild rash in susceptible people, though nothing like the rash of poison ivy.
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By Nancy Buley, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., Wholesale Tree Growers
Photographs courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
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