Some people say the Virginia creeper is a nuisance. Its berries are toxic to humans and it can choke out other plants if gardeners don’t keep it in check. But Parthenocissus quinquefolia has numerous benefits. It provides nourishment and shelter for an array of wildlife and can help prevent soil erosion. For those seeking to jazz up their fall gardens, the Virginia creeper adds a layer of beautiful, bright-red foliage to an outdoor space.
The Virginia creeper grows vines that can climb to heights of 50 feet or trail along the ground up to 40 feet in any direction. Tendrils — slender, coiling organs of the plant — grow sucker disks that enable the vines to adhere to man-made structures or objects, tree bark, nearby plants, rocks, and anything else that lies in their path. The Virginia creeper grows vigorously, creating a carpet of luxurious green foliage that transforms into shades of red, mauve, or purple in the early autumn.
When it comes to a type of soil or sunlight requirements, this vine isn’t choosy and thrives throughout North America. It can grow just as well in full sun as it can in full shade. Alkaline soils are not a problem for this plant, and it doesn’t care if the soil is soggy or dry. In other words, this hardy plant adapts to whatever growing conditions are available, although it will need water during extended droughts. This is the perfect plant for new gardeners or those starting a new outdoor growing space.
At the end of the fall season, the deciduous Virginia creeper drops its leaves. In the spring, it grows new ones that are pale or glossy green or bronzed in color. Each palmate leaf has five, tooth-edged leaflets from two to six inches long, similar to a Boston ivy or poison ivy (which has only three leaflets). The plant blooms with tiny clusters of green or white flowers in the late summer, which produce dark blue berries in early fall.
Take a walk in the plant’s native habitat, the woods in the eastern U.S., and you’ll likely see the vines of Virginia creeper setting up home in the treetops. Botanists don’t label it as an invasive species but do warn of its aggressive nature. Without regular pruning, creepers will get out of hand and become nearly impossible to get rid of. Leave the heavy pruning for spring, but cut back small, unruly stems any time. Use a flathead screwdriver to scrape the vine and its sucker discs away from areas where you don’t want it to grow.
Arbors, pergolas, fences, and other supportive structures are better for training the fast-growing Virginia creeper. If not trained to grow vertically, the plant will grow voraciously along the ground. This makes it a perfect cover for hard-to-grow areas such as slopes or hillsides. Planting Virginia creeper is an excellent way to perform erosion control. Allow one or two years for the plant to become established.
The Virginia creeper needs plenty of room to grow. To bring out the best leaf colors for the fall, plant in sunnier locations in the spring or early autumn. Feed once each year with a general-purpose fertilizer. Look for different varieties. The "Monham" variety has green and white variegated foliage, while "Variegata" grows yellow and white leaves that turn pink and red in the fall. The leaves of the "Red Wall" variety change to a brilliant red.
The Virginia creeper has a high flammability rating, meaning it burns more easily than some other plants due to its chemical composition. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider adding this plant to your landscape — just don’t plant it too near your home. Additionally, both its berries and sap contain chemicals humans should avoid. Oxalic acid in the berries is toxic to humans, though not to wildlife. The sap in the bark, leaves, and stems has needle-like oxalate crystals that can cause skin irritation or rashes for some people. Wear gloves when pruning or planting the Virginia creeper.
If you allow the Virginia creeper to grow on wood or shingled walls, it’s extremely difficult to remove and can ruin painted surfaces. The vines will destroy gutters, shutters, and wiring on buildings. The sucker discs work their way into crevices and cracks. If allowed to freely spread to other parts of your yard, it could choke out neighboring plants within a couple of years.
Birds love to eat the blueberry-like fruit of this plant. Squirrels, mice, chipmunks, and deer enjoy eating the stems and leaves. Climbing plants are particularly attractive to invertebrates like worms, slugs, and spiders. It also serves as a larval host for several Sphinx moth species that take shelter in the plant’s thick foliage.
Leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, and scale love to munch on this plant. Insecticidal soap — mixing dish soap with water — usually gets rid of these pests. Check frequently for signs of mildew, canker, and wilt, which are occasional issues. When possible, wait until late winter to remove mildew-infected stems or branches and dispose of them. Always use sterile pruning tools.