Taxonomy and Botany of Virginia Creeper
Plant taxonomy classifies Virginia creeper (or "woodbine") as Parthenocissus quinquefolia. Engleman's ivy (Parthenocissus quinquefolia 'engelmannii') is an example of a cultivar (sometimes given as 'engelmanii'). Another is 'Red Wall', but its fall foliage color can be disappointing.
Plant Characteristics, Outstanding Feature
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 earns the plant a spot on my 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.
No doubt, its fall foliage color is the outstanding feature of the vine. Along with sumac shrub, another native in my region (New England, United States), Parthenocissus quinquefolia is one of the unsung heroes of the fall foliage season.
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 makes my list of ten plant names confusing to beginners.
USDA Plant Hardiness Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements for Virginia Creeper
Although tolerant of shade, the vines are more likely to achieve optimal autumn color if grown in full sun to part shade. Grow it in a well-drained soil.
Killing Virginia Creeper
Some folks dislike its aggressive growth habits and are intent on killing Virginia creeper. Since it grows so high, it is impractical to try killing Virginia creeper (a mature plant, that is) 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.
Is Virginia Creeper Poisonous?
Reader, Paula Brooks has informed me that 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 brushing up against the plant, even though it is perhaps unlikely for the average person. Nor should you eat Virginia creeper berries.
Warnings, Uses in the Yard
If you live in eastern North America, you probably do not need to grow Parthenocissus quinquefolia in your yard, because chances are good that it is growing nearby anyway, perhaps along a road 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 have considered growing it (many have). 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 do not grow this plant 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. Do not allow it to grow on specimen trees!
But this plant 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 in your landscaping:
- Grow Engleman's ivy; this cultivar is considered less vigorous.
- 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).
- Do not allow Virginia creeper to grow on specimen trees! Instead, grow it on garden arbors, on pergolas, or on fences.
Return to Vines for Shade