In the Garden: Ivy League

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Virginia creeper. Photo: Charles Kidder.

We’re all familiar with grapes, sometimes as a fruit to be consumed as such, but also in jellies and various liquid forms as well. We’ve also likely noticed grape vines themselves, either in the numerous vineyards that have proliferated in the last few years or clambering up trees along roadsides. And a walk in the woods of the eastern United States often reveals the massive Tarzan vines of a mature grape plant. But do the various grape species have any place in an ornamental garden?

The short answer: probably not. The lack of showy flowers, plus the only so-so fall coloration, not to mention the rambunctious growth habit, generally relegate the practice of deliberately growing grapes (Vitis spp.) to those who actually want to harvest the fruits. A few varieties with showy foliage are out there, mostly grown by Europeans, who seem more accepting of plants climbing over their buildings. Other members of the grape family (Vitaceae) can have ornamental possibilities, however, with some major caveats.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), a vine native to most of the eastern and central U.S., has attractive glossy green foliage in the summer, turning purple- to crimson-red in the fall. Its palmate leaf has five leaflets, differentiating it from the unrelated poison ivy’s three-part leaves—except that the young leaves on Virginia Creeper may also have only three leaflets. It’s one of the first plants to show fall coloration in our area; in fact, by now many of the leaves may have already dropped owing to recent dry weather. As the leaves drop, they reveal attractive bluish black berries that are eaten by wildlife. And here’s the first caveat: the berries are toxic. Adults aren’t likely to be consuming them, but kids might.

Perhaps of more concern with Virginia Creeper is the effect of the sap on some people, and here is where we get into the murky depths of internet “facts.” Based on my rather cursory research, it does appear that for some individuals the sap will produce a rash similar to that caused by poison ivy. Note that I’ve said the sap causes the problem; apparently merely brushing against an unbroken leaf or stem will not produce a reaction. But given Virginia Creeper’s rampant growth rate, it’s not unlikely that you’ll find yourself having to prune it at some point. If so, wear gloves, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Even then, some people claim they’ve been exposed to the sap when they removed their clothing. So keep your gloves on, remove your clothing, then throw everything away? I’m not sure I have a good answer for this. While fairly recently I might have advised to enjoy wild Virginia Creeper or maybe even plant it on a remote corner of your property, now I’d recommend that you treat it with great respect. If you’re (still) looking to buy it, you probably won’t find it at the big box stores, but Lazy S’s Farm does carry it, as does Hummingbird Hill Nursery.

A cousin to Virginia Creeper, Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricsupidata) has not been widely reported to produce similar skin reactions, although I did find one source that did make that claim; I assume the berries would still be toxic, however. Boston Ivy’s leaves are generally entire, i.e. not divided into leaflets, but they are three-lobed. This is the “ivy” that covers colleges and other buildings in the northeast. (It’s not a true ivy, that honor going to the invasive English Ivy, Hedera helix.) Boston Ivy is not from the city of the same name, rather being native to Japan and China. And here’s where the nomenclature gets even more confusing: the yellow-leaved cultivar ‘Fenway Park’ was reportedly discovered growing near the baseball park, not on it. But Wrigley Field in Chicago actually does have an ivy-covered wall in the outfield.

While both Virginia Creeper and Boston Ivy can serve as deciduous ground covers, they also have the advantage of being able to cling to almost any structure and climb to considerable heights. Unlike twining vines such as honeysuckle and wisteria, the Parthenocissus cousins have tendrils that secrete calcium carbonate, actually gluing themselves to walls and trees. This climbing proficiency can turn to a disadvantage when you decide you’ve had enough of the plant. Supposedly the tendrils do not damage surfaces while they’re actually attached; the problem arises when you try to pull them off. The solution: cut the vine at the base, the top will die, and the tendrils will eventually lose their grip. Unfortunately, in the meantime, you’ll be looking at an ugly dead vine.

One other genus in the grape family deserves mention. The porcelain berries (Ampelopsis spp.) produce attractive spotted fruits that mature from cream-colored, to pale lilac, and on to bright blue, often in the same cluster. The fruits alone would be sufficient reason to grow the plant if it weren’t so aggressive. The Asian species (A. brevipedunculata, aka A. glandulosa) ranks High on the Virginia Invasive Plant Species List, and should be removed from any property. Pepper Vine (A. arborea) is native to southern and eastern Virginia; if you grew this species you could take some comfort in growing a native aggressive plant. The Asian species has simple leaves somewhat resembling those of Boston Ivy; the American plant has compound leaves, generally with 17-19 leaflets.

Aside from a few warnings about toxicity and invasiveness(?!), you’re now prepared to enjoy these members of the grape family. As for their rampant growth habits, you just need to adopt a new attitude. The Brits seem to enjoy having their cottages and manor homes swallowed up by these vines, sometimes with only the windows still poking through foliage. As a bonus, the vines do keep south-facing walls cooler.

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