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This woody, deciduous perennial that doubles as a vine and groundcover grows quickly to blanket surfaces with luxuriant green leaves. It’s one of the earliest vines to change color in the fall, and the beautiful display ranges from crimson to orange or purple shades. The plant tolerates a variety of moist to dry, well-drained soil types and, unless pruned, may grow up to 60 feet long. Although it will grow in shadier sites, it achieves its best autumn colors if grown in full sun. Virginia creeper provides abundantly for various wildlife.  Besides hosting many species of moth larvae, it is a key source of food for many birds in fall and winter. 

 

Also known as woodbine and five-leaved ivy, Virginia creeper and its cousin, Boston ivy, are not true ivies.  They are in the grape family, and they spread via tendrils with adhesive disks.  The former has blue berries, and the latter has none.  Poison ivy, which resembles Virginia creeper, is in the cashew or sumac family.  It has three leaflets, whitish berries, and adventitious roots, which give the vines a hairy appearance. (Read naturalist Kiersten Rankel's article on the benefits of leaving poison ivy in the landscape--https://tinyurl.com/28efdb96.) Although Virginia creeper causes confusion by occasionally producing three leaflets instead of five, a common saying can help with distinguishing between the two vines: “Leaves of three, let it be; leaves of five, let it thrive.”

 

This native vine is adaptable to many sites and situations.  Unlike the invasive roots of English ivy, the tendrils and adhesive disks of this vine shouldn’t cause damage to buildings or structures.  Some caution should be used, because the weight of a mature vine could pull off wood boards or shift gutters.

 

Virginia creeper grows vigorously up to 20 feet per year and may overtake areas if not controlled. The sticky disks may be hard to remove from surfaces, so grow the vine with confidence on chosen walls or install a sturdy trellis near the wall and prune to control growth.  If allowed to grow on trees, it will cast shade on their leaves and deprive them of sunlight.  An alternative is to train it onto arbors, pergolas, or fences.  Because it will sprawl across the ground if not given climbing support, it is a wonderful groundcover that helps with erosion, especially in shaded areas. In such cases, it forms a mat up to 12 inches tall.

 

Minimal care is needed unless you decide to prune.  Water regularly and deeply during the first growing season; once established and during extreme heat, provide occasional deep watering.  Prune vines yearly and assertively in winter or early spring, especially if they grow over gutters or near trees. Trim dead or diseased vines and also detached vines, as they will not reattach to a surface.

 

Native habitats include the Great Plains, the eastern US, and throughout Ohio in woods, fields, and on stream banks.  It also grows in disturbed sites such as orchards, vineyards, roadsides, fence rows, and untilled fields.  It can be used as a groundcover or a climbing vine for fences, walls, columns, arbors, or other plants. 

 

Plant Characteristics:

Grows in full sun and part shade.

 

Unless pruned, grows 40-60’ long or 12" high as a groundcover.

 

Prefers moist, well-drained soils, including sandy, loamy, clay, and rocky, but will also grow in drier soils. Tolerates a range of alkaline and acidic conditions. Tolerant of drought and salt.

 

Inconspicuous greenish flowers appear in clusters June-July, followed by blue fruits about ¼” in diameter that ripen in October.

 

Compound, green leaves are 2-6” long and have 5 (occasionally 3 or 7) coarsely serrated leaflets with pointed tips. Early fall color ranges from orange to red to purple. 

 

Orange-brown stems are finely hairy with branched tendrils that end in adhesive discs.

 

Wildlife Value:

Host plant to 29 species of moths, including achemon sphinx, grapeleaf skeletonizer, abbott's sphinx, pandorus sphinx (photos here were taken at the nursery!), beautiful wood-nymph, white-lined sphinx, and specialist Virginia creeper clearwing.  During winter, birds are attracted to the red leaves and blue berries.  Fruit-eating birds include chickadees, nuthatches, mockingbirds, catbirds, finches, flycatchers, tanagers, swallows, vireos, warblers, woodpeckers, blue jays, and thrushes. Squirrels, deer, skunks, chipmunks, and mice munch on the leaves and stems.

 

Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Native Americans made an infusion to treat jaundice. Teas made from the plant have been used to treat many ailments, including gonorrhea and a rash caused by poison sumac.  The plant was also used as an herbal remedy for diarrhea, swelling, lockjaw, and urinary issues.  The bark and twigs are made into a cough syrup.

 

The berries should not be eaten; they contain oxalic acid, which will irritate the stomach and kidneys.  The sap of the plant contains oxalate crystals, which can cause skin irritation and rashes in some people.

Creeper, Virginia, Parthenocissus quinquefolia

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