Virginia Creeper: Ornamental or Nuisance?

Mary Heie, UM Extension Master Gardener in Anoka County, February 10, 2015

On a recent trip to the southeastern part of the United States, I noted the growth of kudzu (Pueraria montana), a woody vine growing in the woods alongside the highway. The vine formed a canopy that covered trees and bushes, eventually killing them.  It reminded me of Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quincquefolia), an equally aggressive vine in our area. 

Virginia creeper (from DNR)

Virginia creeper (from DNR)

There are several alternative names for Virginia creeper including: woodbind, false grapes, American Ivy, five-leaf ivy, and thicket creeper.  It is a native perennial, fast growing, deciduous, woody vine that may trail along the ground or climb just about anything, climbing to a height of more than 50 feet with a spread of more than 35 feet. The leaf is composed of five green leaflets that have tooth edges and are from 2 to 6 inches long. In the fall the leaves are a brilliant red turning to maroon color. The flowers are small and barely noticeable.  The berries in late summer and fall are blue/black - about the same color as blueberries, but toxic. Branched tendrils have adhesive tips that help the vine to attach to host plants, fences and buildings. Virginia creeper will grow in shade or sun, in most soil types and is salt tolerant.  Since it is rated as hardy from zone 3 to 9, it can be found throughout much of North America.

Virginia creeper is extremely useful to wildlife. A variety of birds feed on the berries and many animals (squirrels, mice, deer, chipmunks, etc.) feed on the stems and leaves.  The thick foliage provides shelter for wildlife.  It is the larval host for several species of Sphinx moth: Abbotts Sphinx Moth (Sphecodina abbottii), Pandora Sphinx Moth (Eumorpha pandorus), Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth (Darapsa myron), White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata). Virginia creeper is used as a ground cover to prevent erosion. It contributes to the beautiful fall colors. The bark, leaves and roots have been used in medicines.  

With so many seemingly good qualities, why is virginia creeper sometimes a nuisance? The berries are highly toxic and may be fatal to humans. The sap contains oxalate acid that may be irritating to the skin. When it grows where it is not wanted, it can cause problems. As it grows up on any tree or shrub it covers the top with dense foliage that prevents the host plant from receiving sunlight which eventually chokes and kills the plant.  It will also “travel” from plant to plant or tree if they are close enough.  A beautiful stand of lilac bushes will succumb to a canopy of Virginia creeper in just a couple of years. 

Once the vine is established it is difficult to remove.  When the plants are young, they can be pulled by hand.  By the end of a season or two, the vines will have covered the host plant with a lush canopy.  Pull the vines down as much as possible.  Follow a vine stem down to the ground and dig it out if possible.  Or cut it close to the ground and apply glyphosate (Roundup or similar brand) on the cut stem.  Spraying chemicals is not recommended because the host plant and other vegetation around the vine can also be killed. Always read the labels before using any chemical and be certain that the chemical is meant for the plant being treated.  

Unlike kudzu, Virginia creeper is not on the invasive species list and can be purchased. Sometimes Virginia creeper is desired for color and the foliage density and to serve a purpose, for example, along a fence or trellis, or on a bank to prevent erosion. Then it is necessary to keep the growth pattern under control by regular pruning and removing unwanted seedlings.  For more information see: http://www.plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=PAQU2 .