Virginia creeper has a bad—but well-deserved—reputation for its fast spread and tenacity. Also known as woodbine, thicket creeper, and five-leaved ivy, Virginia creeper ruthlessly pushes aside other plants by stealing their sunlight, water, and nutrients. This aggressively vining, woody perennial is native to parts of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy. One small point in its favor is that Virginia creeper doesn’t contain urushiol, the compound that causes all that awful itching. However, it does have sap that may irritate your skin.
How to Identify Virginia Creeper
With its compound leaves made up of 5 leaflets, Virginia creeper is easy to identify. (If you're wondering if that vine growing on your fence is Virginia creeper or poison ivy, count those leaflets—poison ivy only has 3.) Each leaflet has a toothed edge and ranges between 2 and 6 inches long. New leaves start out red but turn green as they mature. New stems of Virginia creeper are hairy and green or yellow-brown, eventually turning gray-brown and hairless over time. The vines can eventually reach up to 3 inches in diameter.
Virginia creeper likes to put on a show, too, producing small clusters of green flowers in the spring that become bluish-black berries in early summer. In the fall, its foliage turns bright red or maroon.
How Does Virginia Creeper Spread?
Virginia creeper grows from seed and usually spreads by rooting wherever stems touch the ground. It doesn’t care whether it grows 50 feet up something or sprawls 50 feet along the ground. Wherever it grows, this crafty vine produces branched tendrils with adhesive “pads” at the tips to help it climb and spread, which is one reason it’s so difficult to control. Left to its own devices, Virginia creeper will grow up just about anything—and if that thing is living, like a tree, the vine can eventually strangle it.
How Do I Kill Virginia Creeper?
As with most aggressive vines, simply pulling Virginia creeper out of the soil will get you nowhere. To kill Virginia creeper, your best bet is to use a product labeled for tough brush, like Roundup® Poison Ivy Plus Tough Brush Killer products, making sure to follow the directions on the label. As with most weeds, controlling Virginia creeper is easiest when the plant is small. If the vine is entwined with other plantings, you will need to shield the plants you want to keep with a sheet of cardboard or plastic when you spray. Also, know that Virginia creeper doesn’t give up easily, so you may need to spray a second time if you notice new growth.
Are There Uses for Virginia Creeper?
Some people actually plant Virginia creeper on purpose. After all, it is quite a dramatic sight in the fall. Because it grows so effortlessly, it's sometimes chosen to cover a garden structure like a trellis or garden wall, or ugly landscape elements like old sheds or large rocks. Virginia creeper can also be used to prevent soil erosion.
All we can say is this: Think carefully before planting it. Unless you can commit to controlling Virginia creeper with regular pruning, it could cause some serious issues for your and your neighbor’s landscapes. Why not consider using a less aggressive vine alternative?