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March 2010 cover image 12 Great State Park Walks

Flora Fact : Friend or Foe?

Virginia creeper, poison ivy’s look-alike, is both loved and hated.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Online gardening discussions go both ways when the topic turns to Virginia creeper, a native Texas vine that’s often mistaken for poison ivy. Some folks praise the vine’s vivid fall colors, the food value of its berries for wildlife and its hardy growth. Others malign the plant for triggering blistery, itchy rashes and vow revenge by means of swift eradication.

Who’s got it right? Both sides!

Photo by Rolf Nussbaumer

Parthenocissus quinquefolia occurs across the state in well-drained soils found along streams and in shaded woods and brushy areas. It can climb as high as 40 feet or more and may sometimes trail across the ground, creating a thick cover. As a Virginia creeper vine grows, tendrils anchor to tree bark, fences and walls by means of adhesive pads. Rootlets form where tendrils and stems touch the ground.

Squirrels and many species of birds — such as mockingbirds, robins and pileated woodpeckers — dine on the blackish-blue berries of Virginia creeper. (Warning: They’re extremely toxic to humans!) Leaves provide larval food for several moth species, including the vine’s namesake — the Virginia creeper sphinx.

In the fall, Virginia creeper’s serrated leaves — similar in shape to those of poison ivy — turn crimson and orange-red. How to tell what’s what? The old adage on poison ivy still applies: Leaves of three, leave them be (Virginia creeper’s leaflets number five or more).

As for allergic reactions, urushiol’s the culprit in poison ivy, whereas Virginia creeper contains oxalate crystals. Per online gardeners in the know: Always wear gloves, long sleeves and pants when pruning or handling Virginia creeper!

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