My rocky relationship with Virginia creeper

By Jessica Bragg

Photo credit: Leonora (Ellie) Enking

It was not love at first sight.  My first impression of Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinqefolia) was “that plant that’s not quite poison ivy”.  They look quite similar in my eyes.  Although the old rhyme “leaves of three, let it be” alerts us to poison ivy, while Virginia creeper typically has five leaflets in each leaf, do you really want something that sort of looks like poison ivy growing on your fence?

Thus was my mindset when it started creeping over the fence from my neighbor’s yard.  I was annoyed.  But a few months later, I was becoming enamored with the scraggly plant.  How did it win me over?  I discovered this native plant has a lot of value for wildlife, despite a few downsides for the homeowner.

The Good

I first learned that some caterpillars love it.   For example, there is a Virginia creeper sphinx moth that is very commonly found near host plants.  I don’t especially love moths, but I know that in every stage they are an essential part of the food chain.  Lots of caterpillars means the baby birds in my backyard will not go hungry.  Even better, birds can also eat the berries of Virginia creeper.  In fact, many birds rely on this fruit during the winter.

Along with benefits to wildlife, there are also benefits to the grower.  For the average homeowner, it’s easy to grow.  The plant is drought tolerant once it’s established.  And Virginia creeper seems to thrive despite neglect.  Actually, it can grow a little too well with neglect.

The Bad

I would say that Virginia creeper is invasive in ideal, sunny conditions, but that’s a word we tend to reserve for pesky exotic plants.  Virginia creeper is native to Eastern North America, so we will just call it aggressive.  Trim it away from small trees that you don’t want smothered.  Left out of control, it can also climb up buildings and damage wood siding or stucco.

Virginia creeper is also not especially people friendly.  Eating the berries causes the irritation of the mouth and throat.  And although Virginia creeper doesn’t have the irritating oils of poison ivy, I wouldn’t roll around in it.  Once the leaves are broken, the sap can be irritating to some people.

And the Ugly?

Like beauty, I think a weed is in the eye of the beholder.  Hanging over fences or growing on trellises, Virginia creeper does have a certain appeal.  With enough sun, it can have beautiful red foliage before it loses it’s leaves in the fall.  Sometimes Virginia creeper is sold at nurseries, so I can’t be the only one that thinks it’s beautiful!

I’m curious to try it out as a ground cover in a shady spot in my back yard.  The plant is well behaved in dappled sun.  And it’s supposedly easy to grow from cuttings.  If things turn sour between us, I know it would be difficult to eradicate.  This is a big commitment.  But I think I might be in love with Virginia creeper.

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