When we think of fall color, we usually think of trees—ash trees are bright yellow, aspen is gold, and oaks and maples are turning crimson. Or we might notice the incredible purple-orange-scarlet leaves on aptly named Burning Bush (Euonymus alata). Not many people expect impressive fall color from a vine.
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is an import from the northeastern U.S., and grows well in Colorado; it’s hardy to zone 3. Three to seven-inch leaflets in sets of five turn a gorgeous red-orange in September and October, creating a pleasing backdrop for the small blue berries scattered throughout.
Ideally, the vine should be planted in average, well-drained garden soil. While it tolerates shade, the fall colors are more intense when the leaves are in direct sun. Since it comes from a wetter climate, you’d expect water to be an issue, and regular watering is appreciated. However, I’ve seen Virginia Creeper growing where it receives no supplemental irrigation. This is one persistent plant!
While this woody vine can be invasive in its natural range, reaching 50 feet or more in length, Colorado’s harsher conditions make it much easier to keep under control. Still, Virginia Creeper should be given plenty of room to stretch.
The vines can be used to provide some shade on brick or rock walls, lowering summer temperatures inside the building, but removing them can be difficult. The tendrils are fitted with adhesive pads that cling tenaciously to anything they touch. Killing the plant is often the only way to remove it without damaging the wall. A sturdy trellis would prevent these problems.
Virginia Creeper will also spread along the ground or grow up trees. Smaller trees can be overwhelmed, disappearing under a mass of foliage.
Birds rely on Virginia Creeper as a source of food in winter, but humans and other mammals should avoid the oxalic acid they contain. Some people also get a mild rash from contact with sap in the leaves and stems.
While Virginia Creeper is not without faults, its willingness to grow under less-than-ideal conditions, vibrant autumn foliage, and bird-sustaining berries have earned it a well-deserved place in Front Range gardens.