Virtual Nature Trail

Scientific name: Parthenocissus quinquefolia
Common name: 
Virginia Creeper

(Information for this species page was gathered in part by Nicole Dodd for Biology 220M in Spring 2001 at Penn State New Kensington)

Comparison of leaves of Virginia Creeper and Poison IvyVirginia creeper is a very abundant, woody vine that is found extensively along the Penn State New Kensington Nature Trail. Virginia creeper is easily distinguished from one of the other major nature trail vines, poison ivy, by reference to the last line of the familiar "vine-rhyme" which states, " … leaves of five, stay alive." The five-parted, palmate leaves of Virginia creeper identifies this non-reactive plant from the dermatitis inducing, three-leafed poison ivy. The leaflets of Virginia creeper are long (three to eight inches), elliptical, and coarsely toothed. They arise from a single petiole and may form a leaf, on older vines especially in the shade, up to one foot in total diameter.

The vine of Virginia creeper is covered with a grayish brown bark that is roughened with concave leaf scars. As the plant ages and grows, its vine gets woodier and increasingly sturdy. Many fine "tentacles" arise all along the vine. These tentacles have the potential to form new stems or to become tendrils that the plant will use to attach itself to structures or surfaces. A tendril can be four or five inches long with five to eight terminal sub-branches. They can attach themselves to a surface by means of a tiny, tip disk that secretes a resinous cement. The adhesive strength of these resinous tendrils is considerable with a single tendril supporting up to ten pounds. Tendril branches that do not encounter a surface tend to grow into a twisting, "cork-screw" shape that hangs from the main stem of the vine. The many branches of a mature Virginia creeper grow independently of each other, each fundamentally growing up toward the strongest sources of light. Because of this branch independence and a robust, average growth rate of four to five inches per year (with a rate of twenty feet per year being reported!), a single vine can quickly occupy a very large volume of space within a forest habitat.

Virginia creeper is especially abundant in the moist, dense, forest ecosystems of eastern North America. It is found northward into southern Canada and southward into northern Mexico, but its most robust growth is in the eastern Unites States. The ideal environment for creeper's growth is a wet but well-drained, nutrient-rich woodland with abundant trees and shrubs on which it's active tendrils can attach and grow. In the absence of trees, though, Virginia creeper can still become a dominant (and sometimes over-whelming) component of a site's flora forming a dense, foot deep ground cover using its extensive tendrils as roots. Creeper has been, in fact, used as a sturdy, cultivated ground cover in soils or habitats in which grasses are not able to be grown.

Flowers and Fruit
The flowers of Virginia creeper are small, inconspicuous, and green to nearly white in color. The flowers are clustered abundantly on the tips of the leaf petioles and are typically hidden from view underneath the leaflets. They bloom from June to August and are pollinated by a variety of small dipterans and hymenopterans. The flowers can be imperfect ("unisexual", containing either male or female structures) or, more commonly, perfect ("bisexual", containing both male and female structures). Clusters of dark blue berries set on the flower stalks. These berries are eaten by a variety of birds and mammals which then disperse the seeds in their feces. The berries remain attached to their stalks until just after leaf fall in autumn. After they fall to the forest floor they may either germinate or may more commonly be consumed by small, foraging rodents.

Ecological Impact
The extensive vine network of Virginia creeper is used by a variety of invertebrates and small vertebrates as a sheltering habitat. Bird nests (including those of the American robin and the hermit thrush) have been observed within the vine systems of the creeper along the Nature Trail. A number of butterflies and moths (including three species of sphinx moths) lay their eggs on creeper leaves and rely on the leaves for both habitat and for food for their larvae.

 Creeper leaves are quite rich in protective chemicals. Human consumption of the leaves may lead to severe vomiting, diarrhea, and narcosis. In controlled doses, though, these chemically diverse leaves have been utilized to treat a great variety of superficial injuries (skin rashes, toothache, bruises, bunions and corns) and internal maladies (liver disease, headache, urinary ailments, bronchitis etc.). The antiseptic properties of the leaves are well documented, but the efficacy of these other uses remain unproven.

Nature Trail Logo

The Pennsylvania State University ©2002 

Creative Commons License This site is licensed under a Creative Commons License. View Terms of Use.

This page was last updated on July 3, 2014  

Thank you for visiting Penn State New Kensington.