By Julie Christensen
Although the name implies a relation to English ivy, Boston ivy (Parthenocissus spp.) actually belongs to a completely different genus. English ivy, which is not reliably hardy in cold climates, has developed a nasty reputation for being invasive in some areas. Boston ivy is an excellent alternative, especially if you live north of the USDA plant hardiness zone 5.
Boston ivy thrives in hardiness zones 4 through 8. It grows best in full sun, although it tolerates partial and even full shade. Related to Virginia creeper, Boston ivy has large, glossy leaves with serrated edges. The leaves can vary in shape, but most are three-lobed. Boston ivy covers the walls of many of the United States’ most prestigious universities, which is where the moniker, “Ivy League,” came from. Boston ivy is native to China and Japan, but gets its name from its popularity on the East Coast.
In the summer, Boston ivy produces prolific leaf growth and small white or green flowers, followed by purple berries. The real show, though, starts in the fall, when the leaves turn red or purple, creating a brilliant fall display. Birds appreciate the berries, although they’re poisonous to humans and pets.
Boston ivy grows rapidly to heights of 50 feet or more. One plant can cover an entire wall within two or three years. The plant has discs that attach to almost any surface so it needs no support to climb. Boston ivy can become rampant, especially in rich, moist soil and a warm climate. Cut it back throughout the growing season to keep it in check and don’t let it grow on wood surfaces because it can damage the paint or wood. It can also damage rain gutters and other decorative elements. It works best on stone, cement or brick.
Growing Boston Ivy Plants
Plant Boston ivy from nursery plants or cuttings in late spring, after the last frost. Plant it in full sun, for best fall color. Water the plant frequently during the first year, as it establishes its roots. Once established, the plant rarely needs supplemental watering. Boston ivy tolerates almost any type of soil, including clay, sand, alkaline, acidic, and dry soils. It can grow in urban settings and in compacted soil. Boston ivy is sometimes grown as a ground cover on slopes to control erosion. It’s also deer resistant.
Boston ivy is generally pest and disease-free, although you might occasionally notice leaf spots or powdery mildew. Remove the infected leaves and cut back the plant so air circulates more freely. In severe cases, you can treat the plants with a fungicide.
Although insects rarely bother Boston ivy, spiders appreciate its protective growth and often spin their webs in it. Cleaning out the plant and cutting it back removes some of these webs and keeps the vines looking tidy. You might notice aphids, scale and leafhoppers occasionally. They rarely cause serious harm. If necessary, treat them with a steady stream of water or cut back the plants. Because of the vine’s rampant growth, it’s difficult to apply pesticides, such as insecticidal oil or soap. In general, you can probably ignore the pests.
For more information on Boston ivy, visit the following links:
Plantwalks discusses Boston ivy on YouTube.
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.