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Parthenocissus quinquefolia, or Virginia Creeper, is a very vigorous deciduous climber with lovely 5 lobed leaflets of a luxuriant green that turn glorious shades of red and orange early in the autumn. The small greenish flowers are insignificant but are followed by 1/4" blue-black berries which provide a food source for birds in winter.
It climbs by means of tendrils and suckers that attach to bark or masonry without damaging the structure and it will quickly cover an area 12m x 6m making it unsuitable for smaller gardens. Being so vigorous it will need regular pruning to keep it under control.
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Parthenocissus quinquefolia is a very tolerant climbing plant being happy in most soils and situations and will quickly take over a large wall, covering it closely with five lobed leaflets of bright green.
It is excellent for a north or north-east facing wall where the shade will ensure the best autumn colour. Its fast growth makes it ideal camouflage for an unsightly shed or outbuilding and it can also be used to climb into a strong tree. It can be used as groundcover where the stems will root where they touch and it will quickly smother out weeds.
Parthenocissus quinquefolia is reasonably disease free but may, very occasionally, suffer from red spider mite infestations or problems with vine weevils. These can both be treated with proprietary sprays. It will need regular pruning to keep it within bounds. The sap can be a mild irritant and the berries would cause a stomach upset if ingested.
Parthenocissus translates from Greek as 'virgin ivy' and so the name possibly derives from its common name, Virginia Creeper. Quinquefolia means five-leaved. The plant was brought to the UK in the middle of the 17th century by John Tradescant who travelled to the New World and was possibly one of the most famous of early British plant hunters.
Tradescant, who lived from 1608 to 1662, succeeded his father as gardener to Charles 1 and had an estate and extensive plant collection in Lambeth. He also had a large collection of artefacts gathered by father and son. The Tradescant library and museum were obtained by Elias Ashmole and form the major part of the Ashmolean Museum where most of it still remains intact.
In its native America this plant is easily mistaken for poison ivy and there is a small rhyme to separate the two:
'Leaves of 3 - let it be, leaves of 5 - let it thrive'.