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Virginia Creeper is synonymous with Virginia, growing wild in nearly every yard and woodlot. It is a vigorous native deciduous woody vine that blooms, bears fruit, and has a beautiful red fall color when growing in the sun. It can scramble across the ground or grow up vertical structures, and thrives in full sun to full shade. Indeed, Virginia Creeper can be grown as a groundcover where little else will grow. Periodic maintenance will be needed to keep it from overwhelming smaller trees and plants, but its potential as a landscaping plant has yet to be tapped (see Cultivation & Special Precautions below).
While Wikipedia points out that the manner of the vine’s attachment to structures doesn’t cause structural damage to stone or masonry, and that in the case of fragile surfaces, surface damage can be mitigated by first cutting the vine at the base to kill it, allowing it to die and dry before pulling it free (Wikipedia, 2023), Virginia Creeper can definitely cause damage. It can weigh down smaller trees and structures by sheer mass, and cause damage especially to relatively more delicate gutters, shutters, wiring, and paint, as well as widening cracks in foundations or getting into wooden frames. Virginia Creeper is also noted as a highly flammable plant and not recommended for planting within the defensible space of the home (NC State Extension). So, while the vine presents untapped potential in the cultivated space, it should probably be kept away from the house and tended regularly.
Unfortunately, it is considered an invasive species in England (RHS, 2023) where it has been introduced because of its lovely trailing form, brilliant fall color, perfect suitability to the traditional practice of growing vines up the walls of stone buildings which do not have air conditioning as a way to keep them cool, and the human love for novelty that has fueled the exotic plant trade.
Like all vines, an understanding of its growth habit together with regular tending can allow you to enjoy this attractive native vine, rather than consigning it to the category of noxious weed here in Virginia where it is native and does belong.
Leaves of Five
The five leaflet structure distinguishes it quite clearly from Poison Ivy, although they are often confused. Both grow in similar conditions, often side-by-side, and the leaves are often a similar color, sheen, and size. Remember the motto for differentiating the two: “Leaves of three, let it be; Leaves of five, let it thrive.” You can also tell a Poison Ivy main vine by its thick covering of fine long red-to-brown hairs, usually attached to a tree and sometimes as thick around as your arm! No other vine has these fine hairs.
Human Uses: Poison Note
According to Wildflower.org, the berries are HIGHLY TOXIC to humans and “May be Fatal if Eaten! Symptoms include nausea, abdominal pain, bloody vomiting and diarrhea, dilated pupils, headache, sweating, weak pulse, drowsiness, twitching of face. Toxic Principle: Oxalic acid and possibly others. (Poisonous Plants of N.C.) Also, the plant’s tissues contain raphides, which can irritate the skin of some people. It is less likely to irritate, and usually, though not always, less irritating than Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), which it somewhat resembles and with which it is often confused.” (Wildflower.org, 2023).
A Ubiquitous Native
Although Virginia Creeper is often considered a weed, and is extremely widely adaptable to a vast range of habitats across the state, it is native! As one might suspect from a ubiquitous native plant, Parthenocissus quinquefolia supports many songbirds, squirrels, opossum, raccoons, and other mammals with its berries (warning! these are toxic to humans). Bees and other pollinators enjoy the nectar from the flowers. And it is a larval host for several charismatic moths, including Abbott’s Sphinx Moth (Sphecodina abbottii), Pandora Sphinx Moth (Eumorpha pandorus), Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth (Darapsa myron), and White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata).
Virginia Heritage Community Type Hallmark
Virginia Creeper is a definining member of Central Appalachian Montane Rich Boulderfield Forests where it scrambles over boulderfields. [USNVC CEGL008528, Tilia americana – Fraxinus americana / Acer pensylvanicum – Ostrya virginiana / Parthenocissus quinquefolia – Impatiens pallida Forest (G3/S3)] is a type of Low-Elevation Boulderfield Forests.