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Parthenocissus quinquefolia – Virginia Creeper

Categories:Ecology Native Plants Perennials Stories For My Children Vines

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I’ve wanted to grow Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, for a long time. I asked my favorite nurseryman where I might find it. He laughed and told me in so many words to just look around or be patient, it will show up. He was right.

I now have Virginia creeper. It arrived in my garden on its own.

virginia creeper leaf

Virginia creeper is native to a huge swath of North America. Its range extends throughout the entire eastern half of the U.S. and west as far as Utah and northern Mexico. It is also known as woodbine, five-finger, and five-leaved ivy. It is not an ivy by the way.

It is a deciduous vine that exhibits beautiful red fall color. It can grow almost anywhere in a wide range of soil conditions and sun exposures. It is drought tolerant once established and grows to 50 or 60 feet. Virginia creeper is not without its problems, as its rampant growth can kill other plants.

Often confused with poison ivy, Virginia creeper has five leaflets and poison ivy has three.

Many of us think we have an infestation of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) on our hands when Virginia creeper shows up. While it does not have the toxicity of poison ivy, Virginia creeper contains calcium oxalate, which can cause blisters in some.

I have little concern as I’m not planning to roll around in the vines. Furthermore, the toxicity is nowhere near the level of the agony caused by the urushiol found in the sap of poison ivy. Our family doctor wrote a prescription or gave me a shot to alleviate my suffering from poison ivy exposure almost every summer of my youth.

On a side note related to our perspective on the value of plants, legendary designer Ryan Gainey observed that poison ivy has its merits in the garden (section 9 of the link).

virginia creeper
Virginia creeper has five leaves. Poison ivy has three.

Virginia creeper climbs aggressively. It’s not for everyone.

As charming and wonderful as I find Parthenocissus quinquefolia, it’s not without challenges. The plant can grow to 50-60 feet. While it will not outright strangle a tree, it can slowly kill trees and other plants by shading them out to the point where photosynthesis is stunted. Further, it can get so heavy that it will bring down small understory plants.

It is highly aggressive and difficult to get rid of once established. You need to be sure you want it before planting it or allowing volunteer vines to stay in your garden. Virginia creeper is a deciduous vine. Unlike hops, whose foliage and vines completely die back to the ground each winter, Virginia creeper’s vines survive winter. This means the plant can get bigger and bigger over time. Because hops, which is technically not a vine, but a bine, dies completely to the ground every year this means hops has to start all over each spring.

Virginia creeper
Virginia creeper covering a rock wall.

Virginia creeper has an interesting method for attaching itself to things. Sure, there are tendrils, but what I love are the adhesive pads it uses to climb even the smoothest of surfaces. It will not destroy mortar when pulled away from brick, but my house is currently covered with the vestiges of these pads. After consulting with my lovely wife Angela, we removed the Parthenocissus quinquefolia from our house. It remains happily elsewhere in the garden I am happy to report. The good news is these sticky pads will eventually deteriorate and go away on their own.

Parthenocissus quinquefolia in the landscape. Why do I value it so?

Virginia creeper has some well-established drawbacks for use in the garden. However, its ecological merits are many. It is native to much of the United States. Many animals eat its bluish-black berries. It provides a place to hide for small mammals. It provides birds cover and a home for their nests. If one considers the fact that Virginia creeper helps support native ecosystems, one can maybe appreciate it in a new light.

Aldo Leopold observed ‘Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.’ He also wrote, ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ These words express the value of Virginia creeper and plants like it in our world. Drawbacks or not, in my garden it will stay.

Genus/speciesParthenocissus quinquefolia
Common name(s)Virginia creeper
Of noteIt can be aggressive, but it’s still one of my favorite plants. can irritate the skin of some people so wear gloves if handling
Fall coloryes
Water requirementsdrought tolerant, average, moist soil conditions
Soil qualityrich, well-drained, average, poor
Suggested use(s)cottage gardens, native collections, naturalized
Hardiness zone(s)3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Typevine
Nativeyes
Invasiveno
Deer resistantyes
Deciduous or evergreendeciduous
Flower colornon-applicable or insignificant
Exposurefull sun, afternoon shade, filtered light

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