There is something in the woods creepier than the ghosts, goblins, and witches that have been wandering around our neighborhoods.
This creeper won’t scare you (unless you have allergies — more on that later.) More likely it will delight you with its brilliant blaze of crimson color and its forest acrobatics, leaping from plant to plant. Virginia creeper is the five-leafed climbing wonder of the woods.
Virginia creeper, also known as American ivy, woodbine, thicket creeper, and Parthenocissus quinquefolia (five-leafed virgin ivy), likes to hang around. It does this with the help of suction cups on the tender tendril tips. These adhesive disks form only after the tendril touches something, and then they just hold on tight. A group of five tendrils is reputed to hold up to 10 pounds of weight.
It has lofty goals and tends to be found in high places. Virginia creeper uses those aforementioned tendrils to grab on and go up, up, up toward the sky. Jack (of Beanstalk fame) would like this plant that can climb trees and reach heights of more than fifty feet.
There is another reason Virginia creeper is literally outstanding this time of year. The plant stands out because of its brightly colored leaves, red stems, and dark purple-blue berries. While it is occasionally confused with poison ivy, these two plants are easily differentiated by anyone who can count to five. Poison ivy has three leaves and white berries (“leaf of three, let it be”), in contrast to the compound five-part toothed leaves of Virginia creeper.
This plant definitely gives some folks the creeps. These are the people that might believe that Virginia creeper is more evil than that guy with horns. For them, the number of leaves is a distinction without a difference: these susceptible types are allergic to the plant and get a horrible rash, rivaling the one from poison ivy.
Also, we all should fear the berries. While they look quite luscious, they are not. These berries contain oxalic acid and are poisonous to humans and other mammals. It is fortunate that they are reputed to taste awful because if mammals eat enough of them, the grim reaper will come calling.
Death does not come to all who taste this plant’s fruits, leaves or stems, however: some animals benefit greatly from this vine. Birds — especially pileated woodpeckers and songbirds — love to eat the seeds, and can become intoxicated by them if the seeds have begun to ferment. Deer and rabbits will browse Virginia creeper’s foliage, and the plant also plays host to some species of sphinx moths. It is a riddle worthy of the Sphinx how some creatures can’t live with this plant while others can’t live without it.
Even with these fatal facts, many of my sources list medicinal values for this plant. A contradiction, to be sure, but then again, there are medicinal uses for arsenic and hemlock, as well, and I am not one to leave anything out.
Virginia creeper will help with a variety of ills. Fresh leaves boiled in vinegar and applied to the torso are said to alleviate pains of the spleen and even aid those afflicted with a “stitch in the side.”
Furthermore, headaches will be no more, and even hangovers will be yesterday’s news with a concoction made from Virginia creeper. For a foot remedy, bruise the leaves and apply to relieve bunions and shooting corns. My favorite, though, is its noted efficacy in treating head lice. There is nothing creepier than head lice.
Edmund Burke said that “ambition can creep as well as soar.” So can Virginia creeper, whose ascension to the top puts it in the ivy league.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.