By Julie Christensen
Stroll through almost any woodland setting in the United States and you’ll probably see Virginia creeper (Quinquefolia). This native climbing vine is indigenous to most of the country and clambers over rock walls, trees and fences. It is hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3B through 10.Birds and animals feed on the berries, while cows and deer feed on the plant’s leaves. Virginia creeper has a dense growth pattern, making it an ideal habitat for birds and small animals. Historically, the roots and bark of the plant were used to treat dropsy, rheumatism and coughs.
Virginia creeper works equally well in a suburban or urban landscape. It grows quickly, requires little care and forms a dense mat, making it a good camouflage for fences, sheds or other eyesores. Its dense root system helps prevent soil erosion on slopes. It tolerates almost any soil type and grows in full sun to partial shade. In moist conditions, it can reach heights of 60 feet tall. Virginia creeper has compound leaves, containing 5 leaves on each stem. The leaves range between 2 and 6 inches long and are finely serrated. When they first emerge in the spring, the leaves are red. They turn green as they mature and become brilliant red or purple in the fall.
Inconspicuous greenish-white flowers bear purple to black fruit in the fall. The fruit is highly toxic to humans, but birds enjoy it. Virginia creeper is often confused with poison ivy, but here’s an easy way to tell the diference: poison ivy’s leaves grow in groupings of 3, while Virginia creeper has 5 leaflets. Additionally, poison ivy’s berries are usually waxy white to light green, rather than purple. A note of caution: although Virginia creeper won’t cause a severe reaction, some people do find its sap irritating. Use gloves when handling the plant and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water to avoid a rash.
How to Grow Virginia Creeper
Virginia creeper, like most native plants, is a cinch to grow and can become invasive in rich, moist soil. Transplant a nursery plant or take hardwood cuttings. If the plant grows wild near your house, simply dig up a few small plants and move them. Keep plants evenly moist, especially during the first growing season as roots become established. Established plants rarely need irrigation or fertilizing, except in very poor growing conditions. Mulch plants with 2 to 3 inches of wood chips to conserve moisture and keep down weeds.
To grow by seed, sow Virginia creeper in the fall, planting it 3/8 inch deep. Virginia creeper seeds need a period of cold stratification to break dormancy.
Prune Virginia creeper back during the growing season if it becomes unruly and dig up any plants that spread. Keep Virginia creeper off trees and shrubs. It will slowly choke other plants and blocks off light. Virginia creeper attaches itself to masonry and walls with adhesive disks. It is difficult to remove and should be considered a permanent planting.
Virginia creeper is in general, a low-maintenance flowering vine. You may notice powdery mildew, especially in late summer, but it rarely causes serious problems. Caterpillars, leaf hoppers and beetles may feed on the leaves, but in most cases, you can ignore the damage. The plant is usually vigorous enough to recover from any infestations. Additionally, mature plants are usually so large that treating insect and disease problems can be difficult.
Although common Virginia creeper grows well in most yards, you might try several improved horticultural varieties for increased pest resistance. Below are a few to consider:
- ‘Engelmanii’: This variety has small, attractive leaves and clings to walls and fences better than other varieties.
- ‘Monham’: Like some varieties of ivy, this cultivar has leaves with white variegations.
- ‘Variegata’: This plant doesn’t grow as vigorously as other varieties, but its leaves are variegated with yellow and white. In the fall, these variegations become pink and red.
To learn more about Virginia creeper, visit the following links:
Virginia Creeper from the University of Illinois
Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia Creeper from the University of Florida IFAS Extension
When she’s not writing about gardening, food and canning, Julie Christensen enjoys spending time in her gardens, which includes perennials, vegetables and fruit trees. She’s written hundreds of gardening articles for the Gardening Channel, Garden Guides and San Francisco Gate, as well as several e-books.