The definition of an Arborist is a person who cares for woody trees, shrubs, and vines, but you will be hard pressed to find me caring for or even about many vines in the landscape. To me, almost any plant that vines and grows up trellises or trees is a problem that can best be solved by severing and killing the vine. This is because most of the vines we deal with in the Richmond landscape are invasive species that spread out of control, damage natural ecosystems, and often damage the plants they are growing up. Be it Wisteria, English Ivy, Poison Ivy, Trumpet Vine, Honeysuckle, or Oriental Bittersweet, I hate it with a passion. There as usual is always an exception to the rule and in this case, I actually love Virginia Creeper vines!
Virginia Creeper is a native vine that does all the things a good vine should while not causing the damage of most vines. Virginia Creeper is a non-invasive vine that climbs trees and structures, provides food for birds that spread its seeds, has a beautiful fall color, and does not overgrow its host plant. When compared to most other vines, Virginia Creeper is a bit of an anemic grower which means that it can take quite a while to fully grow up a tree and because of its low to moderate vigor, it will not overgrow the canopy of a tree or enshroud the stem with foliage which would otherwise hide possible defects.
Virginia Creeper can be easily confused with another native vine, Poison Ivy, as they have similar growth habits, leaf arrangement, fall color, and hairy vines. Due to this similarity, Virginia Creeper is often lumped together with Poison Ivy and is killed with herbicides when homeowners attempt to rid their property of Poison Ivy. There are several easy ways to tell the two apart; the easiest is the leaflet arrangement on the petioles of the leaf. Both vines have compound leaves which means that each petiole, or leaf stem, has multiple leaflets, unlike a simple leaf which has one leaf surface per petiole. Poison Ivy has three leaves per petiole which leads to the old adage “three leaves don’t touch me (or let it be).” Virginia Creeper has 5 similar shaped and sized leaflets per petiole, and the adage continues “leaves of five, let it thrive.”
The vine of Virginia Creeper also has a similar appearance to that of Poison Ivy as they both produce hair-like structures that help them attach to and hold onto surfaces. Poison Ivy has a much finer and denser amount of “hair” that fully envelops larger diameter vines and I always liken its appearance to that of teddy bear fur. Virginia Creeper has larger and fewer “hair” which usually does not fully envelop the vine and seems to hug and grab onto the surface a bit more.
While I can find a seemingly endless amount of reasons why I hate most vining plants, Virginia Creeper seems to offer a stark contrast. The beautiful orange and red fall color never fail to impress and the beneficial source of food for birds and other animals should be reason enough to allow this native and underappreciated vine to grow in your garden. Do know that the beautiful blueberries are toxic to humans and pets, but it is very unlikely that the fruit will be in an area that can be easily accessed.