These two species are quite similar so both are presented together. The common names "Woodbine" and "Virginia Creeper" have been applied to both of these species. To differentiate, P. vitacea, commonly referred to today as "Woodbine" should be called 'Grape Woodbine' and P. quinquefolia referred to as 'Virginia Creeper'. USDA follows this convention, the U of M Herbarium uses those names first but also lists the alternate name, and then MN DNR reverses the names leading to confusion.
Stems: Both species are perennial woody vines that climb. P. quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper) climbs via many-branching tendrils that have adhesive disks at the ends. It can reach to 60 feet. Stems are green when young becoming dark brown and rough with age. As a tendril touches a bit of brick, stone or other solid surface, each knob flattens and becomes a mucilaginous disk that adheres to the surface. For such a small disk, the attachment is strong and solid, requiring some force to remove it. P. vitacea (Grape Woodbine) climbs by tendrils that have few branches, twining tips and no adhesive disks at the ends. It can reach to 30 feet. Stems are green when young becoming brown to reddish brown with age. Tendrils of both emerge opposite the leaves.
Leaves: Both have alternate palmately divided leaves with 5 coarsely toothed leaflets radiating from a common point, with long grooved leaf stalks. The leaflets have pointed tips and wedge shaped bases. Those of P. quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper) are dull green on top and those of P. vitacea are shiny.
Inflorescence: The inflorescence of P. quinquefolia is branched cluster, usually longer than wide, that appears to have a central zigzag axis. Grape Woodbine has a flower cluster that forks into two, sometimes 3, diverging clusters. Both have inconspicuous greenish flowers but P. quinquefolia will have 50 to 150 flowers in a cluster and P. vitacea has considerably fewer - 10 to 60. Both appear on the current years growth opposite the leaves.
Flowers are small, 1/4 inch across with 5 stamens with yellow anthers extending beyond the 5 yellowish-green reflexed petals which have a triangular shape. Sepals are absent or not noticeable.
Fruits: Flowers mature to a bluish-black berry resembling a small wild grape, that contains one to four seeds; light brown from P. vitacea (Grape Woodbine) and dark brown from P. quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper); fruits hang on reddish stalks. Both will grow in lightly shaded areas but more often in full sun, and the leaves of both have a nice red fall color.
Habitat: Both species need sunlight to do well. In shade, flower production will be minimal or absent , but the foliage will still look good, but fall color will be much reduced. Soils should be of good quality with wet mesic to mesic moisture conditions. Stems that trail on the ground can root at the nodes.
Names: The genus name Parthenocissus, is a contrived derivation from two Greek words - parthenos, referring to 'virgin' and kissos, referring to 'ivy' and somehow then attached to Elizabeth, the virgin queen of England (after whom the state of Virginia was named) and carried forward in the common name of Virginia Creeper. "Quinquefolia" is Latin for five leaves, referring to the 5 leaflets of the leaf. "Vitacea" is Latin for vine-like. An older name for P. vitacea is P. inserta.
The author names for the plant classifications are as follows. For P. quinquefolia, the first to classify was '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. His work was updated by ‘Planch.’ which refers to Jules Émile Planchon (1823-1888) French Botanist, teacher and head of the department of botanical sciences at Montpellier University. His most famous endeavor was saving the French vineyards from the Phylloxera by introducing American vines into France to graft as rootstocks. He was assisted in this by Pierre-Marie-Alexis Millardet and American entomologist Charles V. Riley. For P. vitacea, the first to classify was ‘Knerr’ which refers to Ellsworth Brownell Knerr (1861-1942), American Botanist, born in Rochester MN and died in Portland OR. He is the classification author on a number of species found in the central U.S. He was affiliated with the Kansas State Historical Society. His work was updated by ‘Hitchc.’ which refers to Albert Spear Hitchcock (1865-1935) American botanist and agrostologist (one who studies grasses). He worked for USDA, authored more than 250 works, including the important Manual of the grasses of the United States.
Above: 1st photo - The flower panicle of Grape Woodbine, P. vitacea. The drawing shows the panicle of Virginia Creeper, P. quinquefolia, which is more rounded. 2nd photo - Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: 1st photo - The flower panicle of Grape Woodbine with its distinct branching into 2 (sometimes 3) stems. 2nd photo - The flowers are the same in both species (Grape Woodbine shown): 5 stamens with yellow anthers, 5 greenish-yellow petals that reflex with age, and erect pistil with one style.
Below: 1st photo - A new leaf of Virginia Creeper ( P. quinquefolia) just unfolding. 2nd photo - The adhesive disks at the ends of tendrils - unique to Virginia Creeper.
Below: Leaf examples of Virginia Creeper.
Below: 1st photo - Leaves of Grape Woodbine. Note the green is slightly more shiny than the Virginia Creeper leaves shown above. 2nd photo - the fall color of Grape Woodbine. Virginia Creeper is similar.
Below: The berries in mid-summer start to turn blue. By autumn when the leaves turn red they are a brilliant blue (1st photo) followed by a darker color as they age (2nd photo). By that time most have been eaten by birds and animals. Berries of Grape Woodbine shown below.
Notes: Native status: Grape Woodbine is native to most of the U. S. except the SE Quadrant; not found in Canada. In Minnesota it is native to most counties in the State with only widely scattered exceptions. Virginia Creeper is found throughout the U.S. except the western states, and also in the lower Canadian Provinces except the British Columbia and Alberta. In Minnesota Virginia Creeper is much less prevalent than Grape Woodbine, being native in only 14 counties along the eastern edge of the state.
Notes: Ambiguities: Eloise Butler recorded Virginia Creeper in the Garden on April 29, 1907. By this we assume she was referring to P. vitacea, Grape Woodbine, as that is native to Hennepin County. P. quinquefolia has never been collected by the U of M Herbarium in Hennepin County. On Oct. 20 she recorded planting 12 "Virginia creeper" obtained from Jewell's Nursery in Lake City, MN. As P. quinquefolia is native in that area, we could assume that is the species she obtained and thus at this point, both species were now established in the early Garden although the Lake City plants may have been P. vitacea yet again.
Toxic: The berries of P. quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper) are highly toxic to humans and some people will get a skin irritation from the sap of the vine as it contains oxalate crystals. Also, both species can climb very well and can slowly kill a host tree or shrub by cutting off sunlight to the host.
Monet grew Virginia Creeper in his garden at Giverny. Today they almost cover his 1916 studio and a good part of the house. He chose it as its climbing abilities hid vertical structures; then in Autumn the colors would go from green to yellor, orange and red, contrasting with the garden plants. (Ref.# 36a)
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"