Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is at its showiest in autumn. The leaves of this native vine turn bright scarlet, a perfect offset for its ripening fruit. It’s especially striking where it has found a platform to climb.
Virginia Creeper is typically found in woodlands, wood’s edges and fields. It grows as a ground cover,
but can also climb trees
and fences or arbors.
It climbs in a gentle way, using its tendrils. the tips of the tendrils form a suction cup-like pad at their tips that can cling to bark, fences and arbors.
Where Virginia Creeper gets enough sun it will flower, typically in mid-summer.
The flowers offer nectar and pollen that are attractive to many bee species. If the bees are successful in assisting Virginia Creeper with pollination, berries develop and ripen in late summer and fall.
At the same time that Virginia Creeper’s leaves are changing color, its fruit stems (petioles) also turn scarlet, a striking contrast to the fruit that ripens to a deep blue. This colorful display is an advertisement that attracts birds to feast on the luscious fruit. Virginia Creeper has evolved to attract animals to eat its fruit and subsequently disperse its seeds. The seeds go through the animal’s digestive tract, and are eventually deposited complete with natural fertilizer in another location.
Birds including Woodpeckers, Titmice, Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Thrushes, Robins, Catbirds and more flock to this autumn food source. On a recent fall day, I watched Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and several sparrows taking advantage of Virginia Creeper’s bounty.
Because of its habitat, habit of climbing, and color, Virginia Creeper is sometimes mistaken for Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), but they are easy to tell apart. Poison Ivy has compound leaves with three leaflets, while Virginia Creeper’s compound leaves have five leaflets, reflected in its scientific name, ‘quinquefolia’, which means five-leaved.
Mature Poison Ivy vines have very hairy stems, while Virginia Creeper’s bark is not hairy. Virginia Creeper has exfoliating bark typical of other members of its family, the Grape (Vitaceae) family. The bark may be used by birds for nesting material.
Virginia Creeper has other characteristics in common with its family members. For example, its fruit clusters may resemble a bunch of grapes.
Virginia Creeper is also a food plant for the caterpillars of several moth species that specialize on grape family members. Among them are the regal-looking Eight-spotted Forester,
and the Grape-leaf Skeletonizer.
The caterpillars may successfully complete metamorphosis, or they may become food for resident birds or other wildlife. Insects, especially caterpillars, are an important source of food for birds.
Virginia Creeper is also known by the common name Woodbine. It is native in the eastern two-thirds of the United States and Canada.
At different times of the year Virginia Creeper provides fruit, caterpillars, and nesting material. Its dense leafy cover can also be a good place to take shelter. What more could a bird ask for?
Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania. 2007
Stearn, William T. Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names. 1996