For information on tamer Boston ivy, see: Gardening 101: Boston Ivy.
Above: Flaming embers of Virginia creeper in the fall.
Virginia creeper is heaven for birds and insects, providing food and roosting opportunities where it is allowed to flow freely. Native plants host a wider variety of native wildlife, and climbers are particularly noted as shelter for invertebrates. For a wild garden, or a relaxed front path, growing Virginia creeper is an act of generosity.
Above: Virginia creeper in full autumn color drapes luxuriously over a stone wall at the Rousham estate in the English Cotswolds.
- Cheat Sheet
- Keep It Alive
- Plant of the Week: Virginia Creeper
- Virginia CreeperLatin: Celosia Parthenocissus quinquefolia
- The Invaders: Virginia Creeper
- Virginia Creeper Maintenance: Growing Info And Virginia Creeper Plant Care
- Growing Virginia Creeper Vine
- Virginia Creeper Plant Care
- How to Prune Virginia Creeper Vine
- Virginia Creeper
- Characteristics and Pruning
- Virginia creeper grows up buildings just as happily as it grows up trees, attaching itself with aerial tendrils and adhesive pads. It does not damage mortar but its weight, if allowed to hang down in vines, can be problematic when in leaf.
- Like Boston ivy, Virginia creeper is deciduous, putting on a spectacular display in the fall. A west- or south-facing aspect is most effective in encouraging color.
- Resembling poison ivy, it is not poisonous as such but can cause a rash, so gloves are a good idea when handling Parthenocissus quinquefolia. Its small dark blue berries, which look good against the flaming reds in autumn, are toxic.
Above: Common ivy growing amid Virginia creeper.
Keep It Alive
- Virginia creeper is as undemanding as common ivy (pictured above), thriving in any kind of soil, with any level of acidity. (Ideally soil would be well-drained and moist.)
- It is fully hardy and puts up with exposure. Grown against a building, it has cooling properties in summer. Untrimmed, it looks like a shaggy beard in winter.
- Virginia creeper is difficult to get rid of, not least because of its habit of spreading through rhizomes, which result in unscheduled appearances of the plant above ground. Keep the vines in check, chop its stem at the base if you must, but try not to poison it.
See more growing tips at Virginia Creeper: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guides to Vines & Climbers 101. For more ways to add curb appeal to Exteriors & Facades, see:
Plant of the Week: Virginia Creeper
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in “Plant of the Week.” Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.
Latin: Celosia Parthenocissus quinquefolia
Mistaken identities are as common with plants as they are with people. Just as singer Woody Guthrie described outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd as being accused of every crime in Oklahoma during the Great Depression of the 1930s, people who venture into the woods are quick to blame their rashes on Virginia creeper, an innocent bystander.
Because Virginia creeper is a vine that grows in the woods, people jump to the conclusion that it must be poison ivy. About the only characteristic Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) shares with poison ivy is that it grows in the woods. But so do oak trees and bears, and people hardly ever seem to confuse them.
The easiest way to tell these two vines apart is the leaves. Virginia creeper has five leaflets, while poison ivy has three. The five well-notched leaflets are 4-6 inches long and attached to a long petiole. Leaves of Virginia creeper are a deep metallic blue-green on top with a lighter undersurface, while poison ivy is a sickly yellow-green. In the fall, Virginia creeper leaves turn bright scarlet or maroon-red.
Virginia creeper has one of those interesting scientific names that just seem to roll off your tongue — assuming it’s a well lubricated tongue. The genus name is from the Greek word parthenos, which means virgin and refers to Virginia, which was named after England’s virgin queen, Elizabeth I. The second part of the name, kissos, is Latin for ivy. The epitaph translates literally as “five leaves.”
Poison ivy, with its distinctive three-lobed leaves, either climbs trees as a vine or forms free-standing “bushes” 2-3 feet tall. The bush form is referred to as “poison oak.” The stems produce thousands of rootlets that attach the vine to the tree, looking like some irradiated millepede as it climbs skyward.
While poison ivy ranges throughout Canada and the United States all the way to Central America, Virginia creeper is mostly limited in distribution to the eastern states and parts of northern Mexico.
Virginia creeper has holdfasts that are branched with five to seven distinct tips. The tips flatten on the end like suction cups and anchor the vine to the tree or wall. These holdfasts secrete calcium carbonate, the basic component of cement, and literally mortar themselves to their support.
Unlike poison ivy, Virginia creeper will sprawl across the ground and can even be used as a deciduous groundcover.
Virginia creeper is a member of the grape family. It produces clusters of pea-sized blackish-purple berries in late summer and fall. These are relished by birds who spread the seeds with reckless abandon throughout the shrub border and flower beds. While hardly a pernicious weed, new vines have to be pulled regularly or they can get out of control.
Fast growing vines such as Virginia creeper have limited use in the average garden because they are too rambunctious. But if you have a chain link fence to cover, or you’re deciding how to tone down your new Lincoln log concrete block wall, a fast growing vine like Virginia creeper might just fill the bill.
Virginia creeper will grown in sun or shade and is pretty much indifferent to soil conditions so long as it’s not too wet in the winter.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist – Ornamentals
Extension News – September 7, 2001
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.
The Invaders: Virginia Creeper
(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 18, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) does indeed bear a resemblance to poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) . It is more often mistaken for it than any other plant.
Both are woody vines with a strong climbing habit, both have similar brushy aerial roots for clinging to the bark of trees, both are deciduous with leaves that turn red in the fall. And while Virginia Creeper has five leaflets as opposed to the notorious “leaflets three” of poison ivy, it is common for early-sprouting leaves of Virginia creeper to have only three leaflets, exacerbating the confusion. Both plants produce berries that are attractive to birds, which then propagate the plant widely via their droppings. And worst of all, both plants flourish in woodsy habitats, so that it is quite possible to find them growing together in the same thicket or climbing the same trees, and both are difficult to eradicate once established.
There are several ways to tell the two vines apart, however. Virginia creeper’s leaves are “toothier,” longer, and more folded along the midrib, with rather more prominent veins. The leaflets of poison ivy are carried on petiolules (stems), with the central petiolule longer than the rest; the leaflets of Virginia Creeper sprout directly from the stem, without distinct petiolules. The berries of Virginia creeper are dark purple, while poison ivy’s are white.
The reason for the urgency in distinguishing these two plants is of course the fact that poison ivy produces a toxin called urushiol that is seriously harmful to most people. Virginia creeper, however, is not entirely harmless, as it contains oxalic compounds to which some people are allergic; they may end up with a rash from attempting to remove these vines.
This reaction is one indictment against Virginia creeper. The other is its invasive habit of growth. Now there are some people who insist that the term “invasive” properly applies only to non-native plants in a given habitat. In that case, Virginia creeper can not be labeled invasive in the eastern half of the U.S., where it is native. (So, for that matter, is poison ivy.) But it must certainly be considered aggressive. Virginia creeper’s growth can be very vigorous. The vines can grow twenty feet in the course of a single year, and they readily take root at stem nodes along the length of the vine, where new shoots then sprout.
But Virginia creeper really prefers to grow upwards. The plant tolerates shade and can often be found growing beneath trees, but it reaches high for the sunshine. Any time the vine encounters a tree, it begins to climb, anchoring itself into the bark with adhesive pads at the ends of its aerial roots. The vines can reach at least 50 feet in length. It can climb just about any vertical surface: telephone poles, fences, walls. I have some of it covering the side of my metal shed. Left unchecked, Virginia creeper vines have the potential to overwhelm their host tree, but they are less of a problem than, say, kudzu or wild grapevine.
On the positive side, there are many gardeners who appreciate its habits, who want a vigorous climber to cover fences or walls, if not necessarily the trunks of trees. Virginia creeper gets points for being a native plant and for its berries as a source of food for birds (although they can be toxic if ingested by humans). And many people enjoy the bright red color of its foliage in the early fall.
I come down myself on the cautiously positive side. While I have never actually planted Virginia creeper, I have encouraged it in some places as a groundcover. My property is bordered by a long row of junipers, where a lot of really obnoxious weeds had a tendency to sprout – buckthorn, ground ivy, garlic mustard – as well as Virginia creeper. I soon noticed that the Virginia creeper vines outcompeted most of the rest, and I encouraged them to spread the length of the row. Of course they try to spread elsewhere, as well, so that I have to go down the row every year and pull them out of the trees, where they really want to grow. Elsewhere, I try to pull them out if I see them sprouting. Young vines are relatively easy to uproot if you spot them early, and I rarely have to resort to the Brush-Be-Gone. And I would definitely rather have Virginia creeper than poison ivy!
Scientific name: Parthenocissus quinquefolia
Common name: Virginia Creeper
(Information for this species page was gathered in part by Nicole Dodd for Biology 220M in Spring 2001 at Penn State New Kensington)
Virginia creeper is a very abundant, woody vine that is found extensively along the Penn State New Kensington Nature Trail. Virginia creeper is easily distinguished from one of the other major nature trail vines, poison ivy, by reference to the last line of the familiar “vine-rhyme” which states, ” … leaves of five, stay alive.” The five-parted, palmate leaves of Virginia creeper identifies this non-reactive plant from the dermatitis inducing, three-leafed poison ivy. The leaflets of Virginia creeper are long (three to eight inches), elliptical, and coarsely toothed. They arise from a single petiole and may form a leaf, on older vines especially in the shade, up to one foot in total diameter.
The vine of Virginia creeper is covered with a grayish brown bark that is roughened with concave leaf scars. As the plant ages and grows, its vine gets woodier and increasingly sturdy. Many fine “tentacles” arise all along the vine. These tentacles have the potential to form new stems or to become tendrils that the plant will use to attach itself to structures or surfaces. A tendril can be four or five inches long with five to eight terminal sub-branches. They can attach themselves to a surface by means of a tiny, tip disk that secretes a resinous cement. The adhesive strength of these resinous tendrils is considerable with a single tendril supporting up to ten pounds. Tendril branches that do not encounter a surface tend to grow into a twisting, “cork-screw” shape that hangs from the main stem of the vine. The many branches of a mature Virginia creeper grow independently of each other, each fundamentally growing up toward the strongest sources of light. Because of this branch independence and a robust, average growth rate of four to five inches per year (with a rate of twenty feet per year being reported!), a single vine can quickly occupy a very large volume of space within a forest habitat.
Virginia creeper is especially abundant in the moist, dense, forest ecosystems of eastern North America. It is found northward into southern Canada and southward into northern Mexico, but its most robust growth is in the eastern Unites States. The ideal environment for creeper’s growth is a wet but well-drained, nutrient-rich woodland with abundant trees and shrubs on which it’s active tendrils can attach and grow. In the absence of trees, though, Virginia creeper can still become a dominant (and sometimes over-whelming) component of a site’s flora forming a dense, foot deep ground cover using its extensive tendrils as roots. Creeper has been, in fact, used as a sturdy, cultivated ground cover in soils or habitats in which grasses are not able to be grown.
Flowers and Fruit
The flowers of Virginia creeper are small, inconspicuous, and green to nearly white in color. The flowers are clustered abundantly on the tips of the leaf petioles and are typically hidden from view underneath the leaflets. They bloom from June to August and are pollinated by a variety of small dipterans and hymenopterans. The flowers can be imperfect (“unisexual”, containing either male or female structures) or, more commonly, perfect (“bisexual”, containing both male and female structures). Clusters of dark blue berries set on the flower stalks. These berries are eaten by a variety of birds and mammals which then disperse the seeds in their feces. The berries remain attached to their stalks until just after leaf fall in autumn. After they fall to the forest floor they may either germinate or may more commonly be consumed by small, foraging rodents.
The extensive vine network of Virginia creeper is used by a variety of invertebrates and small vertebrates as a sheltering habitat. Bird nests (including those of the American robin and the hermit thrush) have been observed within the vine systems of the creeper along the Nature Trail. A number of butterflies and moths (including three species of sphinx moths) lay their eggs on creeper leaves and rely on the leaves for both habitat and for food for their larvae.
Creeper leaves are quite rich in protective chemicals. Human consumption of the leaves may lead to severe vomiting, diarrhea, and narcosis. In controlled doses, though, these chemically diverse leaves have been utilized to treat a great variety of superficial injuries (skin rashes, toothache, bruises, bunions and corns) and internal maladies (liver disease, headache, urinary ailments, bronchitis etc.). The antiseptic properties of the leaves are well documented, but the efficacy of these other uses remain unproven.
Virginia creeper is a common native woodland plant.
Virginia creeper is a native climber in the grape family (Vitaceae) that is especially noticeable in the fall when the leaves become colored in cool weather. The species Parthenocissus quinquefolia is found throughout eastern and central North America, from southern Canada to eastern Mexico and Guatemala. It has had numerous other scientific names; invalid synomyms include Ampelopsis hederacea var. murorum, A. quinquefolia, Hedera quinquefolia, and Vitis hederacea. Virginia creeper has many other common names including five-leaved ivy (it is not closely related to the true ivy, in the genus Hedera), five-finger, and woodbine. The closely related species, P. inserta, also called woodbine, is very similar in appearance but cannot climb smooth surfaces like P. quinquefolia can.
Virginia creeper has five-fingered leaves.
Virginia creeper grows along the ground in woodlands, often growing up trees or telephone poles on woodland borders, or in open areas such as along railroad right of ways, rocky bluffs, fence rows, banks of streams or lakes, and in disturbed habitats in both rural and urban areas. It is hardier than Boston ivy, growing in zones 3-9, so is often used where Boston or Japanese ivy (P. tricuspidata, native to Asia, zones 4-8) does not survive. The leaves of Boston ivy are 3 lobed with smoother edges and the tendrils are much shorter than on Virginia creeper.
This vigorous, deciduous woody creeper and climbing vine can grow up to 50 feet – and 20 feet in a single year – clinging to surfaces with small, branched tendrils that have strong adhesive disks on the tips to fasten onto bark or rock. The tendrils are produced on the stems opposite from the leaves.
Virginia creeper has branched tendrils (L and LC) that cling with strong adhesive disks on the tips (RC and R).
Growing on the ground, it forms a ground cover about a foot high, with roots forming at the nodes whenever the vines come in contact with soil. The new stems are smooth and green, but eventually they turn brown and woody and finely pubescent. The plant’s tissues and sap contain microscopic, irritating needle-like calcium oxalate crystals called raphides that can cause contact dermatitis (skin irritation and blisters) in sensitive people.
The new leaves are bronze, purplish, or green tinted with red when they emerge in spring, expanding to up to 6 inches long and 2½ inches across. The alternate leaves are palmate, typically with five ovate leaflets, although leaves on young vines may have only three leaflets. The leaflets have coarsely toothed or serrated margins (at least along the top portion), pointed tips, and taper to the base. The leaves are rather variable in appearance, with some vines having broad leaflets with blunt tips and others with slender leaflets with long tips. Each compound leaf is held on a slender petiole 6-8 inches long.
The new leaves are pale or bronzed (L and C), and glossy green (R) before maturing to a dull green.
The leaves are a dull green on the upper surface and light green below. The undersides may be smooth or hairs. They remain attractive through the summer, and in the autumn turn bright purple or red before falling off the vines. It is one of the earliest vines to color in the fall.
In the fall the foliage turns bright red or purple making the plants much more conspicuous than during the summer.
The inconspicuous flowers bloom in late spring or early summer in 4-6 inch wide clusters (panicles of compound cymes) of 50-150 flowers in the upper leaf axils, with each flower at the tip of its own peduncle. Each ¼ inch wide flower has 5 greenish white, triangular, recurved petals, 5 white stamens with large yellow anthers, and a pistil with a stout style. On each plant, the flowers may be perfect, staminate only, pistillate only, or both staminate and pistillate. The flowers are pollinated by insects. Because of their small size and inconspicuous color, as well as generally being hidden by the foliage, bloom on this plant is rarely noticed.
The inconspicuous flowers (C) are produced in wide clusters (L and LC), with greenish-white recurved petals and prominent stamens (RC and R).
The berries mature from green to blue-black in late summer and persist on the vines.
Flowers are followed by round, fleshy, berries that mature from green to blue-black in late summer or early fall and persist on the vines. The peduncles change from green to bright orange-red or red in the fall. The hard, ¼ inch diameter berries that each contain 2 or 3 seeds that are inedible to humans (and toxic when ingested in quantity) but are an important source of food for songbirds in the winter, and deer, squirrels, skunks, and other small animals also eat them. Because of their high concentration of oxalic acid they are moderately toxic to most mammals, including humans. It self-seeds readily (or the seeds are dispersed by birds) so it can become weedy in landscaped areas.
Virginia creeper frequently climbs trees.
Virginia creeper is frequently a component of woodland gardens – either planted by people or naturally dispersed there by animals – where it forms a dense ground cover even in dry shade, or climbs trees. It is also often grown as an ornamental to cover walls or fences and for its attractive fall color. It can be grown on buildings as its clinging disks do not harm masonry (although pulling live vines off can damage painted surfaces; if the vine is killed first, after a while the tendrils will loosen and the vine can be removed with less damage, although a residue will remain).
Virginia creeper grows prolifically.
It makes a good seasonal covering on trellises, arbors, or chain link fences, and when grown on the ground it can easily disguise tree stumps, rock piles, or other eyesores. It is not well suited to mixed or perennial borders or most small gardens. Because of its prolific growth it can be a bit problematic if allowed to grow over other plants, as it smother shrubs and even trees if not managed. However, plants are very tolerant of pruning – best done in spring – and can be cut back all the way to the base if necessary.
Virginia creeper will cover a building if allowed to.
It can be used for erosion control on slopes as it attaches to the ground with adventitious roots. Or try growing several plants together espaliered against a wall to provide visual interest during winter when leafless. It will attach to vertical surfaces, but is not commonly used to cover a wall or building. It also is a good plant for bonsai.
Virginia creeper is most vigorous in full sun but tolerates heavy shade.
This plant is quite easy to grow and quite tolerant of a wide range of conditions. It is a good choice for shady spots where there is space to let it roam. Be sure to site it appropriately as it is so vigorous and aggressive that it may be too much for small spaces or envelop other nearby plants. It is most vigorous in full sun, but does fine in partial shade (and tolerates heavy shade), in almost any type of soil. It is drought tolerant once established, is not affected by juglone from black walnut trees, and is not highly favored by deer (although they sometimes browse the foliage), but it may be fed on by
Virginia creeper has few pests, but will be fed on by Japanese beetle.
adult Japanese beetles and a few native beetles and caterpillars, especially sphinx moths. Prune at any time to shape the plant or keep it in bounds. Virginia creeper is usually grown from seed (sown in fall or spring after moist stratification), but it can also be propagated from softwood, semi-hardwood, or hardwood stem cuttings, root cuttings, or layering.
A small leafed cultivar ‘Engelmanni’ (Engelmann’s Ivy) is sometimes available. It has smaller leaves and denser growth, making it well-suited to small gardens, and is also supposed to adhere to walls better. The cultivar Star Showers® (‘Monham’) has green and white variegated foliage. ‘Variegata’ is a less vigorous cultivar with leaves variegated with yellow and white that turns pink and red in fall. Red Wall™ (‘Troki’ PPAF) by Proven Winners has brilliant red fall color, but is not recommended for planting near buildings.
Virginia creeper is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) because of its similar growth habit and size of the leaves, but is easy to distinguish by the five leaflets, whereas poison ivy always has only three leaflets and the leaflets are more variable in the number and depth of any teeth or lobes. The two plants often are found growing together.
Poison ivy looks similar to Virginia creeper, but only has 3 leaflets and only a few teeth, if any.
– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison
Virginia Creeper Maintenance: Growing Info And Virginia Creeper Plant Care
A vigorous and fast growing vine, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is an outstanding plant for nearly any soil and light situation. Growing Virginia creeper vine provides a nearly carefree addition to the landscape. Virginia creeper maintenance is limited to light pruning and tying up. Learn how to prune Virginia creeper vine and what problems and pests may be an issue.
Growing Virginia Creeper Vine
Virginia creeper produces one of the most spectacular color displays of fall. The five-pointed leaves are usually just an average green but turn a brilliant crimson once temperatures cool.
Virginia creeper can grow in sun to full shade, where soils are soggy to dry and even in lightly alkaline soils. The adaptability of the plant makes it suited for any site but care should be taken to keep it off wood siding and gutters. The vine climbs and adheres to vertical surfaces with aerial roots, and the weight of the plant could pull off boards and misalign gutters.
If you are trying to cover an area with the vine, plant several at once, as the plant does not branch well. Use plant ties to help it start its climb up a vertical surface. You can also use it as a ground cover, much like an ivy or vinca.
This is a perfect plant for a novice gardener since Virginia creeper plant care is minimal and it is a very forgiving vine.
Virginia Creeper Plant Care
Virginia creeper is a carefree plant. It is a deciduous perennial vine with a woody stem. The plant will bloom in June to July with green inconspicuous flowers. They turn into round ball-like fruits, which persist on the vine and add interest. You can cut these off if you have children, as they are highly toxic. Birds will enjoy them if you leave them on the vine.
Watch for leafhoppers, scale and Japanese beetles. Treat with the appropriate insecticide to quell these types of invaders.
The plant may need supplemental water during extended periods of drought but can tolerate short periods of dryness.
The vine is remarkably versatile and vigorous. It can stand alone with little external influence but will grow thicker and more lush with annual fertilizer and shearing.
Occasional pruning is a part of Virginia creeper maintenance. When left to its own devices the vine can grow 50 to 90 feet long. Annual trimming will help keep it to a size that is manageable.
How to Prune Virginia Creeper Vine
The plant rarely needs trimming unless it is encroaching upon a pathway or structure. The vine is very forgiving, which means little finesse is needed when pruning Virginia creepers.
Remove any stems that have been broken from the main plant. Choose sharp, clean pruning shears for Virginia creeper maintenance and cut outside the main stem to prevent injury to the plant. Use plant shears to thin it back where it is getting too bushy. You can cut away small stems where they are getting unruly, but wait until early spring for large scale cutting.
The stems attach with little “feet” that can get into cracks and crevasses. Occasionally these need to be pried away to prevent the vine from growing into areas that could become damaged. Use a flathead screwdriver or other flat implement to scrape the feet off surfaces.
Use a weed trimmer or shears on ground cover vines to keep them fresh. Remove any stems that have signs of fungal or bacterial spot to prevent spread to other parts of the plant.
This North American native plant requires little maintenance and will reward you with easy-care coverage and fall color.
Characteristics and Pruning
This vine climbs both with tendrils (stem tendril climber) and adhesive pads (self climber), has vigorous growth (up to 25 m high) and an annual shoot growth of 1 – 3 metres, often cascading. Has young reddish stems and leaves that are large, strong, smooth, or filigree (“Engelmannii”). Exceptionally healthy foliage, and extremely frost-hardy; foliage from May to October with intense autumn colour! Climbs with short tendrils, at the ends of which adhesive discs form (strong adhesion to any surface). The inconspicuous green-yellow flowers in early summer are followed by blue-black berries on red stems. They are a beloved food for birds, who then leave their bright blue ‘droppings.’ Summer and winter prune as needed to restrain the vigorous growth habit (can cause building/structural damage…) The plants are very easily shaped into any form. but the wild variety doesn’t adhere well to walls and facades at all and is not particularly suited for building greening.
Note: Often the closely related P.inserta (thicket creeper or ‘false virginia creeper’), which does *not* stick to walls, is available under the name of P. quinquefolia. Also, there is a wild species of Parthenocissus quinefolia (not Engelmannii) which is strong in growth, has coarser and darker foliage and minimal adhesion capacity. It is rather insignificant for facade greening.