Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia
A Horticulture Information article from the Wisconsin Master Gardener website, posted 21 Sept 2015
Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia
Virginia creeper is a native climber in the grape family
(Vitaceae) that is especially noticeable in the fall when
the leaves become colored in cool weather. The species
Parthenocissus quinquefolia is found throughout eastern
and central North America, from southern Canada to eastern
Mexico and Guatemala. It has had numerous other scientific
names; invalid synomyms include Ampelopsis hederacea
var. murorum, A. quinquefolia, Hedera quinquefolia, and
Vitis hederacea. Virginia creeper has many other common
names including five-leaved ivy (it is not closely related to the
true ivy, in the genus Hedera), five-finger, and woodbine. The
closely related species, P. inserta, also called woodbine, is
very similar in appearance but cannot climb smooth surfaces
like
P.
quinquefolia
can. Virginia creeper
grows along the ground
in woodlands, often
growing up trees or
telephone poles on
woodland borders, or
in open areas such
as along railroad right
Virginia creeper is a common native woodland of ways, rocky bluffs,
fence rows, banks of
plant.
streams or lakes, and in
disturbed habitats in both rural and urban areas. It is hardier than
Boston ivy, growing in zones 3-9, so is often used where Boston or
Japanese ivy (P. tricuspidata, native to Asia, zones 4-8) does not
survive. The leaves of Boston ivy are 3 lobed with smoother edges
Virginia creeper has five-fingered
and the tendrils are much shorter than on Virginia creeper.
leaves.
This vigorous, deciduous woody creeper and climbing vine can grow up to 50 feet – and 20 feet in
a single year – clinging to surfaces with small, branched tendrils that have strong adhesive disks on
the tips to fasten onto bark or rock. The tendrils are produced on the stems opposite from the leaves.
Growing on the ground, it forms a ground cover about a foot high, with roots forming at the nodes
Virginia creeper has branched tendrils (L and LC) that cling with strong adhesive disks on the tips (RC and R).
whenever the vines come in contact with soil. The new stems are smooth and green, but eventually
they turn brown and woody and finely pubescent. The plant’s tissues and sap contain microscopic,
irritating needle-like calcium oxalate crystals called raphides that can cause contact dermatitis (skin
irritation and blisters) in sensitive people.
The new leaves are bronze, purplish, or green tinted with red when they emerge in spring, expanding
to up to 6 inches long and 2½ inches across. The alternate leaves are palmate, typically with five
ovate leaflets, although leaves on young vines may have only three leaflets. The leaflets have coarsely
toothed or serrated margins (at least along the top portion), pointed tips, and taper to the base. The
leaves are rather variable in appearance, with some vines having broad leaflets with blunt tips and
others with slender leaflets with long tips. Each compound leaf is held on a slender petiole 6-8 inches
The new leaves are pale or bronzed (L and C), and glossy green (R) before maturing to a dull green.
long. The leaves are a dull green on the upper surface and light green below. The undersides may be
smooth or hairs. They remain attractive through the summer, and in the autumn turn bright purple or red
before falling off the vines. It is one of the earliest vines to color in the fall.
In the fall the foliage turns bright red or purple making the plants much more conspicuous than during the summer.
The inconspicuous flowers bloom in late spring or early summer in 4-6 inch wide clusters (panicles
of compound cymes) of 50-150 flowers in the upper leaf axils, with each flower at the tip of its own
peduncle. Each ¼ inch wide flower has 5 greenish white, triangular, recurved petals, 5 white stamens
with large yellow anthers, and a pistil with a stout style. On each plant, the flowers may be perfect,
staminate only, pistillate only, or both staminate and pistillate. The flowers are pollinated by insects.
Because of their small size and inconspicuous color, as well as generally being hidden by the foliage,
bloom on this plant is rarely noticed.
The inconspicuous flowers (C) are produced in wide clusters (L and LC), with greenish-white recurved petals and
prominent stamens (RC and R).
Flowers are followed by round, fleshy, berries that mature from
green to blue-black in late summer or early fall and persist on
the vines. The peduncles change from green to bright orangered or red in the fall. The hard, ¼ inch diameter berries that
each contain 2 or 3 seeds that are inedible to humans (and
toxic when ingested in quantity) but are an important source
of food for songbirds in the winter, and deer, squirrels, skunks,
and other small animals also eat them. Because of their high
concentration of oxalic acid they are moderately toxic to most
mammals, including humans. It self-seeds readily (or the
seeds are dispersed by birds) so it can become weedy in
landscaped areas.
Virginia creeper is frequently a component of woodland
gardens – either planted by people or naturally dispersed The berries mature from green to blue-black
there by animals – where it forms a dense ground cover even in late summer and persist on the vines.
Virginia creeper frequently climbs trees.
in dry shade, or climbs trees.
It is also often grown as an
ornamental to cover walls or
fences and for its attractive
fall color. It can be grown
on buildings as its clinging
disks do not harm masonry
(although pulling live vines
off can damage painted
surfaces; if the vine is killed
first, after a while the tendrils
will loosen and the vine
can be removed with less
damage, although a residue
will remain). It makes a good seasonal covering
on trellises, arbors, or chain link fences, and when
grown on the ground it can easily disguise tree
stumps, rock piles, or other eyesores. It is not well
suited to mixed or perennial borders or most small
gardens. Because of its prolific growth it can be a bit
problematic if allowed to grow over other plants, as
it smother shrubs and even trees if not managed.
However, plants are very tolerant of pruning – best
Virginia creeper grows prolifically.
Virginia creeper will cover a building if allowed to.
done in spring – and can be cut back all the way
to the base if necessary. It can be used for erosion
control on slopes as it attaches to the ground with
adventitious roots. Or try growing several plants
together espaliered against a wall to provide
visual interest during winter when leafless. It will
attach to vertical surfaces, but is not commonly
used to cover a wall or building. It also is a good
plant for bonsai.
This plant is quite easy to grow and quite tolerant
of a wide range of conditions. It is a good choice for
shady spots where there is space to let it roam. Be
sure to site it appropriately as it is so vigorous and
aggressive that it may be too much for small spaces
or envelop other nearby plants. It is most vigorous
in full sun, but does fine in partial shade (and
tolerates heavy shade), in almost any type of soil. It
is drought tolerant once established, is not affected
by juglone from black
walnut trees, and is
not highly favored by
deer (although they
sometimes
browse
the foliage), but it may
be fed on by adult
Japanese beetles and
a few native beetles
and
caterpillars,
especially
sphinx Virginia creeper is most vigorous in full sun but
moths. Prune at any tolerates heavy shade.
time to shape the plant or keep it in bounds. Virginia creeper is usually
grown from seed (sown in fall or spring after moist stratification), but it can
also be propagated from softwood, semi-hardwood, or hardwood stem
Virginia creeper has few pests, cuttings, root cuttings, or layering.
but will be fed on by Japanese
beetle.
A small leafed cultivar ‘Engelmanni’ (Engelmann’s Ivy) is sometimes
available. It has smaller leaves and denser growth, making it wellsuited to small gardens, and is also supposed to adhere to walls
better. The cultivar Star Showers®™ (‘Monham’) has green and white
variegated foliage. ‘Variegata’ is a less vigorous cultivar with leaves
variegated with yellow and white that turns pink and red in fall. Red
Wall™ (‘Troki’ PPAF) by Proven Winners has brilliant red fall color,
but is not recommended for planting near buildings. Other species of
Parthenocissus are more commonly
Virginia creeper is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy (Toxicodendron
radicans) because of its similar growth habit and size of the leaves, ‘Star Showers’.
but is easy to distinguish by the five leaflets, whereas poison ivy
always has only three leaflets and the leaflets are more variable in the number and depth of any teeth
or lobes. The two plants often are found growing together.
Poison ivy looks similar to Virginia creeper, and is often is found growing with Virginia creeper (R-outlined in
yellow amid Virginia creeper) but poison ivy only has 3 leaflets often with few, if any, irregular teeth (L).
– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Additional Information:
Parthenocissus quinquefolia – on the Missouri Botanic Garden’s Kemper Center for Home
Gardening
website
at
www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.
aspx?kempercode=l490
Parthenocissus quinquefolia – on the Floridata website at http://www.floridata.com/ref/P/parth_q.
cfm
Virginia Creeper – on the Illinois Wildflowers website at http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/trees/
plants/va_creeper.htm
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