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Virginia Creeper

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Virginia creeper photo.

Photo showing the vine's fall foliage color.

David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy of Virginia Creeper:

Plant taxonomy classifies Virginia creeper (or "woodbine") as Parthenocissus quinquefolia. Engleman's ivy (Parthenocissus quinquefolia 'engelmannii') is a cultivar (sometimes given as 'engelmanii').

Plant Type for Parthenocissus Quinquefolia:

Parthenocissus quinquefolia is a deciduous, woody vine.

Characteristics:

Grasping for support with its tendrils, Parthenocissus quinquefolia can climb as high as 50 feet. Its leaves, comprised of 5 leaflets, morph from their summer green into a fall foliage color ranging from reddish-orange to burgundy. The flowers aren't much to look at, but Virginia creeper berries are a pleasing dark blue.

Planting Zones for Virginia Creeper:

Parthenocissus quinquefolia is indigenous to eastern North America and can be grown in planting zones 3-9.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Virginia Creeper:

Although tolerant of shade, the vines often achieve optimal autumn color in full sun to part shade. Grow it in a well-drained soil.

Name Origins:

Parthenocissus is a backward translation (and a rather lame one, frankly) from the English, with a healthy dose of poetic license. Partheno- means "virgin" (as in "Virginia") and cissus translates as "ivy." Virginia creeper is, indeed, native to Virginia but is not true ivy. Meanwhile, the specific epithet, quinquefolia, refers to the 5 leaflets of which each of the leaves is comprised. The second part of the common name is misleading, in that the vine is a climber, not a creeping vine.

Outstanding Feature of Virginia Creeper:

No doubt, its fall foliage color is the outstanding feature of the vine. Along with sumac, another native, Parthenocissus quinquefolia is one of the unsung heroes of fall foliage in my region (New England, U.S.).

Killing Virginia Creeper:

Some folks dislike its aggressive growth habits and are intent on killing Virginia creeper. Since it grows so high, it's impractical to try killing Virginia creeper (a mature plant, that is) by spraying its leaves. Instead, cut the vine's trunk (near ground level), then apply the strongest concentrate of glyphosate (Roundup) you can buy to the fresh wound. An organic method of killing Virginia creeper is to dig it out, but this is easier said than done, as the plant spreads via rhizomes.

Is Virginia Creeper Poisonous?:

Since Virginia creeper is one of the plants mistaken for poison ivy, many people wonder if it is "poisonous" in the sense that poison ivy is poisonous. Reader, Paula Brooks has informed me that the sap flowing through Virginia creeper vines does contain oxalate crystals, which -- for a small portion of the population -- can irritate the skin. So you could get a nasty skin rash from brushing up against Virginia creeper, even though it's perhaps unlikely. Nor should you eat Virginia creeper berries.

Caveats:

If you live in eastern North America, you probably don't need to grow Parthenocissus quinquefolia in your yard, because chances are good that it's growing nearby anyway, perhaps along a road you drive every day (where you can get your fill of it!).

But if you live somewhere where Parthenocissus quinquefolia is not a native plant, perhaps you've considered growing it (many have). If so, keep some caveats about this vine in mind:

  1. Parthenocissus quinquefolia is a vigorous grower and may get out of hand if not kept in check with equal vigor.
  2. Sticky, disk-like appendages on its tendrils adhere to wall siding, making it difficult to remove. Don't grow this on walls unless you wish it to be permanent!
  3. Virginia creeper will climb trees and cast shade on their leaves, thus depriving them of needed sunlight. Don't allow it to grow on specimen trees!

Possible solutions to the above problems (in order):

  1. Grow Engleman's ivy; this cultivar is considered less vigorous.
  2. If you want the look of a wall covered with Virginia creeper, but without the risk, install a trellis near the wall and grow Parthenocissus quinquefolia on the trellis (keeping it well trimmed).
  3. Don't allow Virginia creeper to grow on specimen trees! Instead, grow it on garden arbors or on fences.


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