Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Virginia Creeper, Virginia-creeper, Woodbine

A vigorous and fast-growing vine, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is an outstanding plant for nearly any soil and light situation. Growing a Virginia creeper vine provides a nearly carefree addition to the landscape. Virginia creeper maintenance is limited to light pruning and tying up. 

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Parthenocissus quinquefolia, known as Virginia creeper, Victoria creeper, five-leaved ivy, or five-finger, is a species of flowering vine in the grape family, Vitaceae. It is native to eastern and central North America, from southeastern Canada and the eastern United States west to Manitoba and Utah, and south to eastern Mexico and Guatemala.

The name “Virginia creeper”, referring to one of its native locations, is also used for the whole genus Parthenocissus, and for other species within the genus. The name Parthenocissus is from the Greek literally meaning “virgin ivy”, and may derive from the common English name of this species. It is not closely related to the true ivy, Hedera. The specific epithet quinquefolia means “five-leaved”, referring to the leaflets on each compound (palmate) leaf.

This plant is also known in North America as woodbine, although woodbine can refer to other plant species.

Parthenocissus quinquefolia is a prolific deciduous climber, reaching heights of 20–30 m (70–100 ft) in the wild. It climbs smooth surfaces using small forked tendrils tipped with small strongly adhesive pads 5 mm (3⁄16 in) in size.

Leaves

The leaves are palmately compound, composed of five leaflets (rarely three leaflets, particularly on younger vines, and sometimes seven) joined from a central point on the leafstalk, and range from 3 to 20 cm (1 to 8 in) (rarely to 30 cm or 12 in) across. The leaflets have a toothed margin. Seedlings have heart-shaped cotyledon leaves. The species is often confused with P. vitacea or “False Virginia creeper”, which has the same leaves, but does not have the adhesive pads at the end of its tendrils.

It is sometimes mistaken for Toxicodendron radicans (poison ivy), despite having five leaflets (poison ivy has three). While the leaves of P. quinquefolia do not produce urushiol, the sap within the leaves and stem contains raphides (needle-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate) which can puncture the skin causing irritation and blisters in sensitive people.

The leaves sometimes turn a decorative bright red in the fall.

Flowers and berries

The flowers are small and greenish, produced in inconspicuous clusters in late spring, and mature in late summer or early fall into small hard purplish-black berries 5 to 7 mm (3⁄16 to 1⁄4 in) diameter. 

The berries of the virginia creeper contain highly toxic levels of oxalic acid which can be fatal to humans if ingested. The berries can also cause kidney damage. Symptoms of virginia creeper poisoning may include nausea, vomiting, or dizziness. In addition to the berries, the sap of both the leaves and stem can cause skin irritation in some people. Since it is a fast-growing vine that can climb or trail on the ground, people may inadvertently come into contact with broken parts of the plant and be exposed to the sap.

The berries are not toxic to birds and provide an important winter food source for many bird species.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Although one of the vines tolerant of shade, this plant is more likely to achieve its best autumn color if grown in full sun. At the southern end of its range, giving it partial shade is not such a bad idea, though. A suggested location is on a wall facing east or west.

Temperature and Humidity

Parthenocissus quinquefolia is indigenous to eastern North America and can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 10. The plant should survive down to temperatures of -10 degrees Fahrenheit when dormant in winter. It can be damaged by a late frost after spring growth has started.

Watering

Frequent and heavy watering is required only during the first years of growth or during prolonged periods of drought. Once the Virginia creeper has been established, it becomes more drought-tolerant. Water the plant when the top few inches of soil seems dry to the touch. Water thoroughly and wait for the soil to dry out between waterings.

Soil

Grow Virginia creeper in well-drained soil. It will grow well in a variety of soil types, including clay, sand, or loam. It will tolerate a range of soil acidity and alkalinity.

Fertilizing

Fertilize your virginia creeper once in a year, in spring, by using chemical slow-release, all-purpose granular fertilizer. If your soil is fertile and well-balanced, your plant will probably do fine without fertilizer, though it grows more vigorously when it’s fertilized occasionally.

Planting Instructions

Virginia creeper can be planted in the garden in USDA growing zones 3 to 10. It should be planted during spring or fall, which gives it time for the root to establish. 

From Container

If you purchased Virginia creeper in a container, it is easy to plant it in your garden. 

  • Gently remove the plant from its container.
  • Shake excess potting soil off the roots to help your plant adjust to its new surroundings. 
  • Dig a hole twice as wide and slightly deeper than the plant’s root system. 
  • Place the plant in the center of the hole. 
  • Back fill in the hole with soil. 
  • Water deeply.

Pruning

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 when 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 another 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 spots 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.

Propagation

Cuttings

Virginia creeper grows quickly and takes very well to propagating from cuttings. To propagate Virginia creeper from a cutting, find a healthy stem that is at least 12 inches long and cut it at the base with at least a few nodes near the bottom. Strip the leaves from the bottom 1/3 of the stem. Dip the cut end in root hormone, then place in a high-quality potting soil, buried at least 3 inches deep. 

Keep the soil damp and be prepared to change up to a bigger pot in a few weeks. As soon as the cutting establishes a good root system, it’s ready to be planted in the appropriate place outdoors. The whole process usually takes three to four weeks.

Seed 

Virginia creeper is a prolific plant that is easily grown from cuttings; however, the use of seed is possible. Sow directly into soil that has been amended with peat moss or sand. Bury the seeds about 3/8 inch deep and keep them to no more than 10 per square foot. Provide deep watering once a week. The plant will grow quickly. Be prepared to thin out the stems to the hardest during the first few weeks of growth.

Overwintering

Virginia creeper is a very hardy plant that should have no problems with handling even the harshest winter. Though the foliage will die back during the coldest months, it will come back vibrant and lush as soon as warmer temperatures come around.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Many pests consider Virginia creeper a tasty treat, including caterpillars. Pick off the caterpillars and drop them into soapy water. More difficult insects include flea beetles, leafcutting bees, leafhoppers, and scale. Employ horticultural oils, nematodes, insecticidal soap, and cheesecloth (in the case of bees) to help protect your vines.

Leaf spot, powdery mildew, canker fungus, and anthracnose are common diseases that can damage Virginia creeper. Treatments that control fungal disease are the first line of defense.

Common Problems 

The biggest problems with Virginia creeper come from misunderstandings about the plant. Some folks dislike its aggressive growth habits and are intent on killing Virginia creeper. Since it grows so high, it’s impractical to try killing a mature Virginia creeper by spraying its leaves. Instead, cut the vine’s trunk (near ground level), then apply the strongest concentrate of glyphosate (Roundup) you can buy to the fresh wound. An organic method of killing Virginia creeper is to dig it out, but this is easier said than done, as the plant spreads via rhizomes.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Artistic Value

Foliage provides a stunning show of color in the fall.

  • Environmental Protection Value

Purifies the air, removing toxins and other harmful impurities.

  • Garden Use

Virginia creeper is a deciduous woody vine commonly found in gardens. It is prized for its colorful red foliage in autumn. Its spreading habit makes it suitable for erosion control and ground cover; whilst its large leaves are good for screening. Virginia creeper is essential in pollinator gardens. Plant with flowering creepers such as Clematis or Climbing Rose for aesthetic contrast.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) Details

Common name Virginia Creeper, Virginia-creeper, Woodbine
Botanical name Parthenocissus quinquefolia
Plant type Ground Cover
Hardiness zone 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Fall
Height 30 ft. 0 in. - 50 ft. 0 in.
Width 30 ft. 0 in. - 50 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Green
Leaf color Green