Virginia Creeper

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 04, 2022
5 min read

It's hard not to be impressed by the Virginia creeper's fall display of vibrant red leaves. But this attractive plant has a darker side: berries that can irritate the mouth and sap that can cause a skin rash. Think before you add this native plant to your landscape. 

You can learn a lot about the Virginia creeper by analyzing its various names. It grows in Virginia, along with the whole eastern half of the U.S. Like other creepers, it spreads quickly, growing up trees and buildings and creeping along the ground. The botanical name, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, means an ivy from Virginia that has five leaves. It's also known as American ivy because it's native to North America.

Another name, woodbine, fits because the plant has woody stems, and it climbs by using little suction cups called holdfasts, which makes it a bine instead of a vine.

Virginia creepers provide a valuable habitat for wildlife including:

  • Birds. Because Virginia creepers often climb high on trees and buildings, their berries are available when others may be under snow and ice. The berries also stay on the vines for almost half the year, often lasting into early spring.
  • Mammals. Deer, squirrels, mice, chipmunks, and other animals feed on the leaves and stems.
  • Insects. The plants provide nectar for bees and food for other insects. The Virginia creeper is the preferred host for several caterpillars, including the larvae of the sphinx moth.

The Cherokee and Iroquois tribes used the Virginia creeper in herbal medicine. They used it to treat ailments ranging from diarrhea to lockjaw (tetanus). They also made a wash from the twigs to treat exposure to poison sumac.

People sometimes confuse Virginia creeper with poison ivy, but the two are easy to tell apart. Poison ivy has three leaves to a stem. Virginia creeper almost always has five. The two plants also differ in color, growing habits, and the appearance of their berries. 

Here are the identifying marks of Virginia creeper:

  • Leaves. Typically a bronze-green when they emerge, the leaves change to green in the summer and red or purple in the fall. The leaves are toothed and palmate, which means the five leaves meet at one point just as your five fingers attach to your palm. 
  • Flowers. You may never see the tiny green-white flowers, which often hide beneath the foliage.
  • Berries. The small round berries are green at first, changing to blue-black in the fall. The stems or peduncles that hold the berries turn a vibrant red or orange. 
  • Tendrils. The Virginia creeper has green, branched tendrils that end with adhesive disks, sometimes called holdfasts. 

The holdfasts work because they secrete calcium carbonate and cement themselves to surfaces. Because the tendrils attach to the surface of their host instead of penetrating, they don't damage buildings. But they can be hard to remove, and the tendrils and holdfasts may remain in place if you pull away the plants.

The natural habitat of Virginia creepers includes brushy country, woodlands, and the banks of rivers and streams. The plants like moist, acidic soil that's well-drained, but they tolerate almost any growing condition. They grow as far north as Quebec and Ontario and as far south as Guatemala.

Virginia creepers aren't toxic, but they contain microscopic crystals. If you chew the berries or leaves, the crystals may irritate the delicate tissues of your mouth. Some people also react to the Virginia creeper's sap. Although it doesn't contain the troublesome oil of poison ivy, you may develop a rash if Virginia creeper sap gets on your skin.  

Children sometimes try to eat the attractive berries of the Virginia creeper because they look like they might taste good. The flavor of the berries is usually enough to keep them from taking a second bite. 

Although animals sometimes eat the berries of Virginia creeper, they're unlikely to poison your pet. But they may sicken pet birds like budgerigars (parakeets).

Eating Virginia creeper could produce the following symptoms:

  • Your lips, tongue, and other mouth areas could feel irritated and turn red. You might produce extra saliva.
  • If you ate a lot of Virginia creeper, your mouth and throat could swell, causing problems swallowing and breathing. 
  • Nausea and vomiting could happen after you consume Virginia creeper. 

Touching the sap of Virginia creeper could cause a rash.

Treatment is simple if you or someone you know eats Virginia creeper: 

  • Wipe out your mouth.
  • Rinse your mouth with water and spit it out.
  • Take a few swallows of water to wash down any remaining plant material.
  • Use ice chips to relieve mouth pain.
  • If the reaction includes vomiting, stay hydrated with small sips of water. 

Treatment for a Virginia creeper skin rash is also easy, although the symptoms may not go away as quickly:

  • Wash the skin with soap and water.
  • Use calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream, or another ointment of your choice to relieve itching.
  • Take an antihistamine like Benadryl if the itching is severe. 
  • If the rash doesn't improve after about three days, or if your discomfort is severe, see your doctor.

You can easily identify Virginia creeper if leaves and berries are present. It's harder in the winter, when the leaves are gone, although some berries may last until spring. You can also tell Virginia creepers apart from other plants by looking for the little adhesive discs or holdfasts that help it climb.

Plants that look somewhat like the Virginia creeper include:

Bushkiller vine. This plant also has five toothed leaves to a stem, but the middle leaf is larger and grows on its own stem.

Peppervine. This vine has dark-colored berries similar to those of the Virginia creeper, but its leaves aren't palmate. Instead, three leaves attach to each other, and the other two grow farther down the stem. 

Thicket creeper. This vine closely resembles the Virginia creeper, but it lacks its distinctive holdfasts. Its berries are slightly larger too.