In Praise of the Common….

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a common Ozark native with many admirable qualities, but many people overlook this versatile climber and rip it out of the ground as a weed! News flash! Many native plants are regarded as “weeds” by unsuspecting gardeners. I recently read mention of the concept of “plant snobbery” in a national gardening magazine, and that phrase reminded me of Virginia Creeper, a plant I wish to praise!

Virginia Creeper is not new or exotic. Virginia Creeper is easy to grow. I admire the lush green foliage which turns burgundy in the fall. Its dark blue/black berries are an important food for birds in the winter. It performs well in shade or sun and is a vigorous grower. Virginia Creeper can climb tall buildings, or ramble over unsightly objects, or scramble along a fence to soften straight edges with its graceful cluster of five leaves. I encourage you to use your imagination and to consider multiple possibilities for this plant that grows from Guatemala in the south to Manitoba, Canada in the north and west to Texas and Utah. I imagine it feeds a lot of birds in that huge part of North and Central America!

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My admiration for this hardy vine began in 1979 when I was a new homeowner of a 1988 Queen Anne Victorian house in downtown Kansas City, MO. To disguise an uninspired north wall I trained Virginia Creeper against the shingles. Initially, I called it “five finger vine” after finding it growing in a nearby wooded lot. I had observed its growth habits in various settings and decided to transplant several small starts. Before long someone helped me identify what I had planted. With a common name I was able to check at the library to learn about its growing habits and to realize I’d not planted an aggressive interloper. Virginia Creeper adheres to surfaces by tiny disks located at the end of the tendrils rather than by penetrating roots of true ivies. Today I learned that five-finger vine is one of its common names.

Another positive experience with Virginia Creeper involved helping a volunteer crew of women to paint a friend’s house. The homeowners both appreciated the “cottage” appeal of vines covering several exterior walls. We carefully pulled the Virginia Creeper vines away from the walls, painted the surface and replaced the vines once the paint dried. We used long strands of jute to replace the vine along the walls.

Earlier I mentioned the appeal of the strong burgundy color of the leaves in the fall. Others have noticed the striking color too. While visiting in a small town north of Leavenworth, KS during that same time period I discovered a small house painted a silver gray with burgundy trim. Numerous strands of Virginia Creeper traced intricate patterns up the front and a side wall. Because it was fall and because I was observant, I saw that the homeowners had painted the burgundy trim on the house the exact color of the burgundy Virginia Creeper vines climbing their walls. I was thrilled with my observation and pulled out my camera to record the sight. I was pleased with the ingenuity of those homeowners who created this scene for all of us to take pleasure in.

Five years later I followed my dream of living on land in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas. I bought forty acres of hardwood forest and began to explore the land. I soon encountered my old friend–Virginia Creeper thriving in the shady clearing near the Mahaffey family homesite. Homesteaded in the 1880s, their cabin site became my choice camping site and later the spot Jeanne and I built our 800 square foot house. I found Virginia Creeper climbing high into the crown of a black walnut which towered over the clearing.

Virginia Creeper performs as an effective ground cover under our cedar tree.

Virginia Creeper performs as an effective ground cover under our cedar tree.

With this extensive history Of a positive relationship with this plant, you can imagine my surprise when someone viewing our native plant display huffed, “I would never buy a Virginia Creeper–it’s everywhere!” Since then I have wanted to share several creative options for garden designing that I have used to feature this “common weed”.

Those dark berries do create many seedlings. Most of those volunteers I pluck as weeds when they sprout–too much of a good thing. But the graceful growth habit of Virginia Creeper has charmed me. Several years ago I planted a seedling in a pot by our front door (see the first picture) allowing it to clamor up the small garden shed. Some years the deer browsed it, but it has survived for a decade. With all the rain this spring this potted creeper has flourished. Each time I open the door I am pleased by the sight of the lush new growth indicating its “lust for life”.

Nearby I have Virginia Creeper cascading out of a glazed blue pot with the tendrils dangling around a bright yellow chicken I found at a flea market.

This bright yellow chicken I found at a flea market wander snear the blue pot of Virginia Creeper.

This bright yellow chicken I found at a flea market wanders near the blue pot of Virginia Creeper.

A third option features Virginia Creeper and chartreuse Creeping Jenny trailing from a hanging planter. With real soil and unfussy plants, I don’t have to water this as often and the combination is free–taken from my yard.

Lush leave of Virginia Creeper soften the lines of buildings.

Lush leave of Virginia Creeper soften the lines of buildings.

Virginia Creeper excels as a ground cover in shady spots like under this cedar tree. It will shade out most weeds, but not root too deeply to be removed at a later date. On a hillside it can help prevent erosion and help keep the soil from drying out.

I was surprised when one visitor to our booth reported that Virginia Creeper is a relative of poison ivy and can cause skin irritation. She did volunteer that she cannot tell the two plants apart, so I was skeptical. Virginia Creeper is not related to poison ivy, but can look similar in certain situations. Poison ivy can be a vine or a shrub, but always has leaves presented in groups of three (see photo). The tender new growth of Virginia Creeper vines can have groups of three leaves in the early stages of development and the leaf shape is similar. The more mature parts of a Virginia Creeper always displays the typical cluster of five leaves. In doing research for this post, I discovered some people do react to contact with the sap of Virginia Creeper! According to information from USDA, the sap contains oxalate crystals which causes skin irritation and blisters in sensitive people. I have never experienced any reaction at all.

Poison ivy is a visually attractive plant with obvious clusters of three leaves--never groups of five like Virginia Creeper.

Poison ivy is a visually attractive plant with obvious clusters of three leaves–never groups of five like Virginia Creeper.

As an enthusiastic gardener I welcome the challenge to use our common plants in interesting ways. We can take advantage of their easy-going nature and their established adaptation to our locale. Other favored plants have disappointed me over the years, (usually because of their aggressive nature like violets), but not Virginia Creeper. I still delight in this native climber. Please let me know your experiences with our common neighbor.

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