Dear Readers, at this time of year there are few vines that are exquisitely coloured as good old Virginia Creeper. It can carpet whole walls, turning them into a vision of scarlet and russet, lime green and gold, before the leaves drop off and everything returns to normal. Unfortunately, in the UK it is far from its original home in North America, and is a Schedule 9 species – this means that it is illegal to plant Virginia creeper in the wild, and if planted in a garden it is expected that ‘reasonable measures will be taken to confine (the plant) to the cultivated area to prevent their spreading to the wider environment’. The problem is that it can quickly swamp other plants and in particular it can pull down saplings and young trees. I know this from personal experience – the demure little vine that was planted next to my shed rapidly found a way to infiltrate through the window and out through the door in one direction, and to choke the crab apple in the other direction. To say that it is enthusiastic would be an understatement. Virginia creeper first arrived in the UK in 1629, and seems to have been covering our walls and stately homes ever since.
The RHS in collaboration with the charity Plantlife have produced a very handy guide to gardening without using invasive species – you can download it from here.
The generic name ‘parthenocissus’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘virgin ivy’ – whether this is how the plant got the name ‘Virginia creeper’ or if the Greek name was derived from the English one remains to be seen. Certainly the plant is found in the state of Virginia in the United States so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch. The species name ‘quinquefolia’ means ‘five-leaved’, and, if you’re in North America, this is one way of distinguishing the plant (which has five leaflets on each lea) from poison ivy, which has only three. However, the leaves of Virginia creeper do contain tiny needles of calcium oxalate – these are known as raphides, and can cause blistering and irritation in susceptible people.
Raphides are produced in response to a surplus of calcium in the soil, and are found in a wide variety of plant species. They may help to support the plant structurally, but they may also have evolved as a protection against herbivorous animals who might otherwise snack on the leaves: those vicious little needles help to speed toxins produced by the plant into the soft tissues of the mouth and throat.
Virginia creeper produces attractive dark blue berries in the winter, which become apparent once the leaves have dropped off. These are enjoyed by birds, but contain very high levels of oxalic acid, which can be poisonous to humans (though I suspect that this substance would make the fruit very unpalatable).
Different climbing plants use different methods to gain a bit of height. My climbing hydrangea produces roots along its stem to help it cling to my north-facing wall, and clematis and bindweed use their stems to encircle and embrace any nearby vegetation. Virginia creeper, however, uses little adhesive pads that remind me superficially of geckos’ feet.
But why do plants climb at all? The great advantage of being a climber is that you don’t have to waste a lot of energy growing a structural support such as a trunk – you can find a tree that’s already done all the work (or a rock or telegraph pole or wall) and use that as a way of accessing light and keeping your tender growing shoots out of the way of passing herbivores. Many climbing plants originated in tropical areas, where dense vegetation meant that they had to be able to grow even in relative darkness, until they reached a height where they could ‘see’ the light. In ‘The Encyclopfdia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences (Volume 2)’ edited by Cara Linn Daniels and C.M. Stevans, the symbolic meaning of Virginia Creeper is said to be ‘I cling to you in both sunshine and shade’. And yes, Encyclopaedia is spelt with an ‘f’ in this case.
Darwin was intrigued by climbing plants, and wrote a book about them: he concluded that
‘It has often been vaguely asserted that plants are distinguished from animals by not having the power of movement. It should rather be said that plants acquire and display this power only when it is of some advantage to them; this being of comparatively rare occurrence, as they are affixed to the ground, and food is brought to them by the air and rain.’
And so it is with the Virginia creeper: in my garden, it is not until the leaves start taking on their autumn hues that I can appreciate how far and how fast it has grown in the course of a season.
Virginia creeper has been used as a treatment for urinary disorders and in the treatment of malaria. It was also part of the medicine used by the Navajo in their nine-day long Mountain Chant Ceremony, which is held at the end of winter, and is considered to be a healing ceremony, not only for individuals who may be sick but for the whole of the Navajo universe.
Now, you might think that a plant as cheerily as gaudy as an autumn Virginia creeper would not inspire dread. Dear readers, I present to you a painting by Edvard Munch, entitled ‘Red Virginia Creeper’.
The whole house seems to have been dipped into a pot of blood, while the young man appears to be frozen in existential dread. The tree has been viciously pollarded, the path looks like frozen mud, and the sky is leaden grey. Goodness. All in all, it isn’t a cheerful scene, though is that a marigold that I see in the bottom left-hand corner? One can but hope.
According to the Edvard Munch website, Munch was in a relationship with the daughter of a wealthy wine-merchant at the time that this work was painted: Virginia creeper is a member of the vine family. Furthermore, Munch apparently dreaded the ‘entanglement of marriage’. I suspect that one could lose many cheerful hours trying to work out exactly what Munch’s paintings mean. Suffice it to say that the red hues of the Virginia creeper did not lighten his mood one jot.
And finally, a poem. Here is ‘Creeper’ by John Updike, the ninth in a ten-poem sequence published in The New Yorker back in 2009. Updike died in January 2009, and there is much in this poem that is valedictory. ‘Quite quits’ indeed. May we all meet our ends with such a sense of contentment.
With what stoic delicacy does
Virginia creeper let go:
the feeblest tug brings down
a sheaf of leaves kite-high,
as if to say, To live is good
but not to live—to be pulled down
with scarce a ripping sound,
still flourishing, still
stretching toward the sun—
is good also, all photosynthesis
abandoned, quite quits. Next spring
the hairy rootlets left unpulled
snake out a leafy afterlife
up that same smooth-barked oak.
Photo One from https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwiHwKuVm93lAhVPExoKHTzaCPUQjhx6BAgBEAI&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.geograph.org.uk%2Fphoto%2F6168285&psig=AOvVaw0o4j52Okln7ASRCc7M0iry&ust=1573391744990591
Photo Two by By Agong1 – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10858734
Photo Three by By Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5113041
Photo Four by By JMK – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49654492
Photo Five By Broly0 – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40553306
Photo Six from https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjCubnusd3lAhVGxIUKHeTQAIYQjhx6BAgBEAI&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.geograph.org.uk%2Fphoto%2F3705629&psig=AOvVaw3uhP1ec_dY98YgxxCvitGd&ust=1573397779149303