Sunday, September 16, 2012

Misunderstood Virginia Creeper

Growing on the brick wall outside my back door is one of my favorite native vines, Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia.  It is a volunteer that I have allowed to grow freely, except for an occasional pruning to keep it from blocking the gutters.  The thick foliage is a haven for a multitude of insects, frogs and birds.

The leaves turn a bright red color in the fall and make an impressive display.  Few plants can rival the brilliant red displayed by a healthy Virginia Creeper leaf.

The plant does have one problem.  Too many people are under the mistaken impression that Virginia Creeper is actually a mutant form of Poison Ivy or more commonly, they think it is Poison Oak.  It bothers me to see people cut and spray a plant because of a misidentification.  A Virginia Creeper leaf is composed of five leaflets, although by accident or design that number may be reduced.  Poison Ivy and Poison Oak both have three leaflets.  Poison Oak is also a western species, so people in the eastern U.S. don’t have to worry about it.

Even if you were to pull a couple of leaflets off of the Virginia Creeper leaf, the difference between it and the Poison Ivy, shown on the left, is quite distinct.  There are many differences in the shape and design of the leaflets, but the most easily recognized feature is the long stem at the base of the center leaflet of the Poison Ivy.  The bases of the Virginia Creeper leaflets are very short and practically identical in length.

Virginia Creeper is a member of the Grape Family and the blue fruits look much like wild grapes.  Birds are quick to clean up these fruits and drop the seeds over a wide area.

This particular vine was growing in the center of a drainage way, so received some additional moisture through the year.  Many of the Virginia Creeper vines in upland areas failed to produce any fruit because of the ongoing drought conditions.  If people would give this vine a chance, I think they would grow to like it.


  1. We have a lot of Virginia Creeper here in Sweden, but I'm sure they refer to it by some other common name. Interestingly, the Swedes often refer to plants by their Scientific name. For example the science name for Columbine is 'Aquilegia' but pronounced by Swedes in their sound as "akleja" which is close to the scientific name.

    It is prolithic over here scambling over granite slabs and boulders creating mass effects where Fall colour comes in deeep burgandy.

    In Arizona there is a native Virginia Creeper there, but you only see it once in a while under certain forest conditions and usually climbing a Ponderosa Pine. The climate keeps it in check.

    Thanks Steven for another kool article on something people should truly educate themselves on. Not only does it destroy a beautiful plant, but allows more chemicals into Earth's environment.



  2. There is also a cool green colored sphinx moth (Darapsa myron) whose larvae feeds on Parthenosisis. I found one this august in my backyard.

  3. Hi Kevin. Most of our Virginia Creeper is found hanging from the trees. Having it running over the rocks as a ground cover sounds very attractive.

    Hi David. I've seen pictures of the moth, but haven't yet seen a live one.

  4. I love the Virginia Creeper that grows with abandon on our fence.