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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Virginia creeper crawls across the rocks at Round Lake Trail in the Chequamegon State Forest. © Donna Krischan
Virginia creeper crawls across the rocks at Round Lake Trail in Price County.

© Donna Krischan

October 2001

The vine that twines

Nature provides many ways to take hold without hands or feet!

Anita Carpenter

Vines climb, loop, twist, trail, spiral and entwine. They cover fieldstone fences, encircle tree trunks, entangle shrubs and blanket historic brick buildings. Vines grow everywhere, slowly filling in the gaps on the landscape in their quest to reach sunlight. Vines are just doing what nature dictates because vines, by definition, can't stand by themselves: they depend on others for support.

In summer, vines blend in well with their supporters, waiting until autumn to outshine those upon which they depend. One of the first vines to vividly announce its whereabouts is Virginia creeper, whose early turning crimson leaves on the fading green landscape portend shorter days and cooler nights.

Virginia creeper is a familiar vine that thrives in hedgerows, along forest edges and on buildings. It is easily identified as the vine with the salad-plate-sized, alternate, palmately compound (resembling a hand) leaves. Each compound leaf is composed of five serrated, dull-green leaflets which are longer than they are wide. Each leaf droops slightly on the vine.

Virginia creeper is a tenacious climber. Long, light green, branched tendrils enable Virginia creeper to grasp other objects and support itself as it climbs ever higher. The two- to five-inch tendrils, which are really modified stems, grow from nodes opposite the leaf attachment. As the tendril grows, its cells grow at different rates. Consequently, the tendril moves back and forth as it elongates. When the tendril contacts a solid object, cells grow rapidly. Those that touch the support shorten slightly while those on the opposite side lengthen slightly, coiling around the support. Wrapping can be fairly rapid and one or two coils can form per hour.

Coiling tendrils are useful for climbing fences and shrubs, but Virginia creeper also dramatically cloaks stone and brick buildings. How does this vine climb flat surfaces where coiling tendrils would be useless? As a tendril grows, tiny knobs appear on the ends of its many branches. As a tendril touches a bit of brick or stone, 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.

Although Virginia creeper is now conspicuous on the autumn landscape, insects discovered and pollinated its tiny, greenish-white blossoms last June into July. The non-showy flowers bloomed in small clusters of 50 to 150 blossoms. The stem supporting the flower cluster zig-zags as it grows, resulting in a flower grouping that is longer than wide. Ripe purplish-black berries hang on bright red stems as leaves turn colors from September into October. Each berry holds from one to four seeds. The fruits are sought out by hungry migratory songbirds that unknowingly disperse the seeds to new locales.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a member of the grape family, Vitaceae, and may be mistaken for a similar-looking vine called woodbine or grape-woodbine (Parthenocissus vitacea). Although the compound leaves of both species look very much alike, subtle differences appear in the tendrils and floral arrangement. Woodbine tendrils have fewer branches and almost always lack adhesive disks. So woodbine can't climb as high on flat surfaces and is unlikely to blanket buildings. The floral cluster in woodbine has a rounded, not oblong, appearance because the cluster stem forks at the top as each branch produces a rounded display of tiny flowers. Each cluster also contains fewer flowers. The two vines may grow together so it may not be as easy as it seems to distinguish them.

Autumn is a wonderful time to study vines and Virginia creeper, with its flaming leaves, is just one of the glowing beauties to admire at this time of year.

Anita Carpenter notes the season's changes from her Oshkosh home.