Vines are an essential part of our garden. Our neighbor’s grape vine grows over the fence and unnamed vines send their tendrils up the stems of the wild rose. The star climber is, however, the Virginia creeper on the west wall of our house.
Virginia creeper is one of our most common climbing plants. Under favorable conditions in the wild, it grows to 20 metres or more, but it also does very well in dappled sunlight or partial shade on the side of houses and fences.
Virginia creeper sends out multiple vines, using tendrils with sucking disks to anchor it to surfaces. It boasts a lush, green tangle in the summer and lovely reddish leaves in fall that have made it a fine garden plant.
Unlike many garden plants,this is a native Canadian, first introduced to England by the Tradescants in the 17th century and now a favorite among gardeners the world over.
15 years ago, our creeper was a young plant that reached barely three metres up the side of the house.
We worried about the potential damage the strong tendrils might do to the bricks and mortar, but left it alone because it added some green in the driveway.
Each year the creeper grew, suffering in winter the heavy icicles that would hang from its upper branches and pull the tendrils away from the brick, surviving in summer the occasional tug from overzealous children pretending to be Tarzan.
When vineswere pulled down, they would wither and die and had to be cut off. No amount of tying them back into position would do.
The creeper eventually grew to the eaves. It sent out strong vines along the soffit and started growing along the hydro cable. It reached around to the back of the house and started along the roof line.
The creeper became an important part of our landscape. As soon as the leaves came on in spring, our local colony of house sparrows would move in and use it as their roost, chattering away in the evening and waking us in the morning.
The creeper grew over our windows in summer, providing heavy shade from the strong afternoon sun. Last summer, a lone female sparrow roosted every night on top of the half screen in the bathroom window. We had to adjust the blind to avoidfrightening her away.
Another summer, we discovered four huge caterpillars, about five centimetres in length, on the lower branches of the vine. The discovery sent us scrambling to our field guide to identify them as abbot’s sphinx moth.
We never saw the adults but theyare reputed to have very large bodies and a wingspan of about seven cms.
This year, we had the house painted. This forced us to remove the vines attached to the soffit. Working from a ladder six metres above ground made cutting the vine back very difficult. We opted for pulling the vines back from the soffit.
This was a mistake. The next day we drove into the driveway to find it a metre deep in Virginia creeper. All those cut vines, unattached by their suckers to a surface, had made the plant top-heavy and literally pulled it off the wall.
Since the vinesdie without the tendrils to support them, we were forced to cut our beloved climber back to the ground.
It’s hard to describe our sense of loss. Instead of thick, green leaves, chattering sparrows and buzzing insects, we have a barren brick wall covered with white bird droppings.
We only hope that in the next few years, our Virginia creeper may once again spread its thick cover over our west wall.
Virginia creeper Details
- Botanical name: Parthenocissus quinquefolia
- Family: Vitaceae (Grape family)
- Trivia: Also called woodbine or five-fingered ivy, it is native to eastern North America from Canada to Mexico. It was one of the first plants sent back to England from the colonies, and is often seen growing on buildings there.
- Growth habit: A deciduous woody vine or running ground cover, it attaches to structures via tendrils that have tiny adhesive discs on the ends. These discs often remain behind or leave a residue if the vine is pulled off.
- Size: It will climb 30 feet or more, or trail across the ground.
- Foliage: The large palmately compound leaves are sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, but each leaf has five leaflets with toothed edges. It is prized for its beautiful scarlet fall color.
- Flowers: The clusters of small whitish green flowers are fairly inconspicuous.
- Fruit: Bears clusters of blue-black berries on red stems, which are relished by birds but highly poisonous to humans.
- Exposure: Sun to shade
- Culture: Very easy to grow, it is not picky about soil types and is drought and salt tolerant.
- Hardiness: Cold hardy in zones 3-9
- Uses: Virginia creeper can be stunning climbing on a fence or wall, especially where it will get enough sun to develop good fall color. It can also be used as a groundcover and does particularly well on slopes.
- Pruning: May be pruned to control size and to tidy up its unsightly appearance in winter.
- Problems: Fast growing and sometimes aggressive, this vigorous climber may need to be kept under control so that it doesn’t smother other plants. It will take root readily if allowed to run across the ground. Birds also disperse the seeds, so expect to find seedlings popping up in other areas.