Friday, October 14, 2016

Virginia Creeper

Brilliant blue sky and abundant sunshine greeted me at the Cable Community Farm. I’d been waiting for this—a perfect day to dig potatoes! Shovel, garden fork, and boxes clattered cheerily behind me in the little red wagon as it bumped over uneven paths. Stopping to open the garden gate, I took a moment to gaze appreciatively at the scarlet leaves of a Virginia creeper vine that had wound its way along the deer fence all summer.

A few weeks ago I admonished Albert Camus for thinking that fall needed to be a “second spring when every leaf is a flower," but Virginia creeper is a different case. One botany website describes its flowers as “insignificant.” Ouch! Honestly, though, I’ve never noticed the flowers. A quick search on Google Images shows that they are actually quite pretty, in a tiny, spritely way. The five-parted flowers are deep burgundy and pale cream, and grow in a grape-like cluster, eventually ripening into blue-black berries that are eaten by birds, mice, and other small mammals. Although, how much does their beauty count if you don’t ever see it? I just put a note in my calendar: next year, I’ll remember to look!

Virginia creeper’s fall colors more than make up for its inconspicuous July blossoms. Its starbursts of five gloriously vibrant red leaves (palmately compound leaves, technically) dominate all my memories of the plant. Growing up, we admired its color annually in the old fencerow below the house. A line of elm trees was dying and decaying in quick succession, and each tree was draped in more of the elegant vine than the last.

Those elm trees had bigger problems than a colorful vine, of course, but in some cases Virginia creeper can thread itself throughout the branches of a tree so thoroughly that it will shade the tree’s own leaves to death or add enough weight to hasten its downfall. On non-living substrates, like buildings, Virginia creeper is reported to be less damaging than non-native, invasive ivy. English ivy climbs using aerial root-like structures—appropriately called holdfasts—that wiggle their way into nooks and crannies and support themselves using adhesive nanoparticles. The holdfasts are exceedingly hard to remove, and excess moisture trapped against the wall can cause damage.

Perhaps because it is native, Virginia creeper isn’t quite so disparaged as a climbing nuisance. For one thing, it provides valuable habitat and hiding places for many small critters. The structure of its “holdfasts” also makes a difference. Its tendrils are tipped with tiny suction cups that flatten against the substrate and use the plant’s version of two-part epoxy to glue them securely in place. This structure eventually becomes woody and very weather-resistant, but is reportedly less damaging than ivy’s penetrating rootlets.

While the berries are toxic to humans and rubbing the stems or leaves on your skin may cause irritation, Virginia creeper is much less noxious than its most common look-alike. Especially when young, Virginia creeper is easily confused with poison ivy. While we all know the “leaves of three, let it be” rhyme that reminds us of a key characteristic of poison ivy, the five leaves Virginia creeper often unfurl sequentially. This means that at some point in the development of new leaf clusters they may only have three leaflets. Looking at the entire plant will help you make the correct identification.

Another mnemonic I just learned is “if it’s hairy, be wary.” This refers to the veritable fur of aerial rootlets that covers a poison ivy vine. Virginia creeper has those tendrils tipped with suction cups, but not in a density that would make it look hairy. I think we’re all pretty happy that it’s Virginia creeper and not poison ivy that’s twining itself along the deer fence at the Cable Community Farm!

A couple hours later, the little red wagon was once again bumping through the gate and under the glowing red garland of Virginia creeper. I was happy with my full box of purple potatoes, but overwhelmed by the 62 squash and pumpkins I’d also harvested from my garden plot. After loading it all in my car, I straightened my back, grabbed my camera, and went back to try and harvest just a little bit more of this perfect fall day.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

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