Boston Ivy Plants: Growing and Planting Tips

Lovely Vines, but Keep Some Warnings in Mind

Boston ivy leaf in its summer green color.
David Beaulieu

Boston ivy vines are popular for several reasons, not the least of which is their colorful fall foliage. They have several uses in the landscape. Learn how to grow and care for these colorful and versatile plants.

Botany and Taxonomy for Boston Ivy

Plant taxonomy classifies Boston ivy plants as Parthenocissus tricuspidata. These plants are perennial, deciduous, broadleaf vines. They are true climbers, attaching themselves to masonry and wooden surfaces using holdfasts (aerial roots).

Description of This Vine, Cultivars

In spring, the new leaves of Boston ivy are reddish. The leaves typically turn green in summer, before reverting to a reddish color in fall. The plants produce inconspicuous flowers, yielding to clusters of dark blue berries. The vine length of mature plants may reach 50 feet or more.

When you shop for Boston ivy at a garden center, you will often find it being sold as a cultivar. Cultivars include:

  • Purpurea and Atropurpurea are similar, but the foliage of the former stays a more constant reddish-purple from spring to fall.
  • Veitchii starts out purple, is green in summer, and turns crimson in fall. It is marked by its smaller leaf size. By contrast, Green Showers has leaves larger than those of most Boston ivy cultivars.
  • Fenway Park is an odd cultivar in that its spring foliage color is yellow. The leaves change to green in summer, then to red in autumn.

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Needs for Growing Boston Ivy

In spite of its common name, the plant is indigenous to Japan and China, Boston ivy vines are best grown in planting zones 4 to 8 in North America.

Grow the vines in partial shade to full sun in a well-drained, loamy soil. Their water needs are average. Planting Boston ivy plants in full sun allows them to achieve maximal fall color.

Uses in Landscaping, Care Tips

Growing Boston ivy plants up garden arbors, pergolas, and fences are all sound practices.

You can grow them on a trellis, as well, especially if you need a privacy screen in summer for a specific area of the yard. The vines are also often grown up walls for that Ivy League look. Alternatively, let them spread out horizontally to function as ground covers.

These plants are vigorous growers. Prune the vines once each year (in late winter), so as to check the rapid growth. Simply prune away any growth that is out of place (either vines that are sticking out in an unsightly way or vines that have grown beyond the territory that you want them to cover). The vines respond well to pruning, so have no fear!

While fertilizing is often unnecessary, some growers apply a fertilizer high in phosphorus (the middle number in the NPK sequence) at planting time to encourage root development. An all-purpose fertilizer would be fine for any fertilizing that you feel you need to do after that.

Boston Ivy vs. Virginia Creeper vs. English Ivy: Identification Tips

Boston ivy is related to another vine, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). For identification purposes, note that Virginia creeper's leaf is a compound leaf, composed of five leaflets. Boston ivy's leaf may be compound on young plants but, in such cases, it will display three leaflets.

Once mature, Boston ivy bears a simple, not a compound leaf. The vine is also sometimes confused with English ivy (Hedera helix) by beginning gardeners, but the two plants are not related; moreover, English ivy is evergreen, while Boston ivy is not. Plants in the genus, Hedera are true ivies. Others may have common names that contain that word (Boston ivy and the dreaded poison ivy being examples), but they are not real ivies.

Origin of the Scientific Name

The Latinized Greek name for Boston ivy is something of a misnomer. Partheno- means "virgin" (as in "Virginia") and cissus translates as "ivy." But while its relative, Virginia creeper, is, indeed, native to Virginia, Boston ivy is of Far Eastern origin. Meanwhile, the species name, tricuspidata, refers to the mature leaves of Boston Ivy: The leaves, while not compound, do have three distinct lobes.

Warnings About Growing Boston Ivy

If you wish to allow Boston ivy to scale the walls of any buildings, make sure first that you desire it as a permanent fixture. Once the vine gets a toehold, it is difficult to remove it from walls, so tightly do the holdfasts at the end of its tendrils hold it on the supporting structure. You could do damage to a wall in your attempts to rid it of entrenched Boston ivy. It is better to train the vine to grow on trellises and similar structures unless you are sure that you want it as permanent "siding" on your wall.

Nor should you allow Boston ivy to climb a tree that you care about: The shade cast by the vine will interfere with a tree's photosynthesis, thereby depriving it of nutrients.

This vine for shade is poisonous if eaten, whether by people or pets, although wild birds do eat the berries. Some people also suffer from an allergic reaction to Boston ivy upon contact.