Door to Nature: Autumn Color and the Virginia Creeper

Autumn is the time to enjoy nature’s transition from the greens of summer to the glorious colors of changing leaves on trees and many plants. Sunny days help to increase the vibrant hues.

Ash trees are being attacked by the emerald ash borer and may not be on the landscape for too many more years. Their autumn color is very distinctive when seen in a tree line of different deciduous species. Ash leaves turn to a subtle purple-maroon tone and are pinnately divided.

Sugar maples can be brilliant red in some years and predominantly yellow in other autumns. Here again it is the amount of sun that is hitting the branches. Drive down a country road and look at the maples to see that the sides of the tree facing more sun are changing color first, as are the top-most branches.

One plant that not many people know is also putting on a show this month. It is the Virginia creeper and, like the wild grape, is a vine that can cling to trees and reach 60 to 80 feet high. Just like the wild grape, it can become aggressive and perhaps weedy.

The name Virginia creeper comes from a French term, “Vigne-Vierge.” It is also known by the name woodbine or red-twig creeper.

There are actually two species of Virginia creeper in Wisconsin and appear very similar. One species, Parthenocissus integra, (par-then-o-SIS-us in-TEG-ra), has leaves that are shiny on the upper surface and whose vines do not produce a lot of fruit. The plants lack the sticky pads used for climbing, found on other species, and instead have tendrils that wrap around various objects like tall trees with rough bark. 

When not close to tall trees the plants will form sizable thickets on the ground. This is the species that can be found in Door County. Another common name for this plant is grape woodbine.

The other less common species in the state, and very uncommon in Door County, is Parthenocissus quinquefolia (kink-eh-FOE-lee-a) whose leaves are more pubescent (covered in short hairs or down) and therefore not shiny. This vine is most often called Virginia creeper, but also Virginia climber.

Virginia creeper vines can climb 50 feet high on tree trunks. Photo by Roy Lukes.

These vines produce more fruit, but they are usually quite high on the tall vines and not easy to see. Due to its sticky pads this species can climb up virtually bare walls and even windows. Since both species are so similar, it is common to use Virginia creeper for each.

Even though the small dark blue to purplish fruits are not abundant on our county’s vines, birds are quick to find and consume them. Eastern bluebirds, American robins and other thrushes, common flickers and the red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers relish the fruits. Thus it is easy to visualize the seeds of these vines being spread far and wide in the droppings of the birds, many of which will germinate and grow the following season.

White-tailed deer, squirrels and other small mammals also eat the fruit, which is considered to be poisonous to humans. Strangely, many forms of wildlife are totally immune to various toxins found in wild plants but could prove to be fatal to people. The berries are only one-quarter inch in diameter but contain toxic amounts of oxalic acid and can cause kidney damage and death in humans.

You might want to be cautious about introducing it to your property. Just like some of the other members of the vine family, including wild grapes, the Virginia creeper can become very weedy and aggressive in its growth habits. Its ideal growing conditions include rich, moist soil along edges of woodlands where it can also get enough sunlight. Many ripe fruits may drop to the ground and plant themselves to create a dense growth. It may be better to just enjoy it along the public roads or on other people’s property.

The size of the leaves varies. In areas where virtual little thickets have formed within a foot or so from the ground we have found some leaves to be 15 inches across. It always reminds me of one of my favorite trees, the horse chestnut, whose compound leaves usually have five to seven leaflets.

I remember camping in the Great Smoky Mountains in spring and seeing poison ivy growing right next to the Virginia creeper. The ivy grew as a thick vine climbing high on tree trunks. It might be easy to confuse the two plants. If you remember the caution, “leaflets three, let them be,” you can distinguish the poison ivy from the five-leaflet Virginia creeper.

Another confusing aspect of the two plants during the fall season pertains to their rich colors. Virginia creeper tends to be a more vibrant red compared to the orange and yellows of the poison ivy.

Its attractive foliage, manner of growth and the excellent cover and food it provides wildlife make the Virginia creeper one of the most beautiful vines of eastern North America.