Virginia Creeper

Tips for Growing, Killing a Pretty, Poisonous Vine

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

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Virginia creeper sports gorgeous fall foliage, but many people either mistake it for poison ivy or just don't appreciate its beauty. While it's true that there are problems associated with growing this plant, there are simple solutions you can learn to address each of these concerns.

Taxonomy and Botany of Virginia Creeper

Plant taxonomy classifies Virginia creeper (or "woodbine") as Parthenocissus quinquefolia. Engelmann's ivy (P. quinquefolia var. engelmannii) is an example, although this variety is sometimes listed as a cultivar (P. quinquefolia Engelmannii). Another variation on the wild plant is Red Wall, but its fall foliage color can be disappointing, despite its promising name.

Parthenocissus quinquefolia is considered by botanists to be a deciduous, woody vine. It's a close relative of Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata).

Plant Traits

Grasping for support with its tendrils, Parthenocissus quinquefolia can climb as high as 50 feet. Its leaves, comprised of five leaflets, morph from their summer green into a fall foliage color ranging from reddish-orange to burgundy. This spectacular change occurring in autumn should earn the plant a spot on any list of the top shrubs and vines for fall color. The flowers are not much to look at, but Virginia creeper berries are a pleasing dark blue.

Along with sumac shrub, another native in the eastern United States, Parthenocissus quinquefolia is unfairly taken for granted in the region for its fall color simply because it grows wild there.

Name Origins: Virgins and Misnomers

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 a true ivy, so this part of the botanical name is misleading. Meanwhile, the species name, quinquefolia, refers to the five leaflets of which each of the leaves is comprised. The second part of the common name is also misleading, in that the vine is a climber, not a creeping vine. This misnomer is the reason why it easily makes the list of ten plant names confusing to beginners.

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Needs, Problems for Virginia Creeper

Parthenocissus quinquefolia is indigenous to eastern North America and can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 9.

Although one of the vines tolerant of shade, this plant is more likely to achieve its best autumn color if grown in full sun. At the southern end of its range, giving it partial shade is not such a bad idea, though. Grow it in a well-drained soil.

The chief problem you'll have in growing this vine is that it does tend to get powdery mildew. While this fungal disease does not harm the plant, it does take away from the beauty of its foliage.

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 a mature Virginia creeper 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.

Virginia Creeper Poisonous to Humans, Not Technically Invasive

Since Virginia creeper is one of the plants mistaken for poison ivy, many people wonder if it's poisonous to humans in the sense that poison ivy is poisonous. 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 touching the plant (though it's unlikely to cause a problem for the average person), meaning it's a good idea to wear gloves when handling it. Nor should you eat Virginia creeper berries, so don't leave curious kids unattended around it.

Because it's native to eastern North America, Virginia creeper cannot, technically, be listed as an invasive plant there. A plant that spreads out of control where it's native is said to be "aggressive," instead. But if it displays thuggish behavior in its native land, then it's a good bet that such a plant will be invasive if grown in regions to which it is alien.

Warnings, Uses in the Yard

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 is growing nearby anyway, perhaps along a road that 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. If so, keep some warnings about this vine in mind:

  • Virginia creeper is a vigorous grower and may get out of hand if not kept in check with equal vigor. Therefore, it would not be a good plant choice for you if you seek low-maintenance landscaping.
  • Sticky, disk-like appendages on its tendrils adhere to wall siding, making it difficult to remove. Removal could, in fact, cause damage to the wall. So don't grow it on walls unless you wish it to be permanent!
  • 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!

But it does have viable uses in the landscape, and here are some possible solutions to the above problems (in order), should you wish to grow it:

  • Grow Engelmann's ivy. This cultivar is considered less vigorous than the species plant. Some bronze color tends to creep into its otherwise red fall foliage, though.
  • If you want the look of a wall covered with Virginia creeper, but without the risk, install a sturdy trellis near the wall and grow Parthenocissus quinquefolia on the trellis (keeping it well trimmed).
  • Because you shouldn't let Virginia creeper grow on your specimen trees, consider, instead, training it onto garden arbors, onto pergolas, or onto fences.

Another use for the plant is as a ground cover. For, although it's a climbing vine, it will simply sprawl along the ground if not given a support on which to climb. When used as a ground cover on a hillside, it can be effective for erosion control.