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What is Parthenocissus?

By Angela Williams Duea
Updated May 16, 2024
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Parthenocissus is a group of climbing plants that grow wild in temperate zones from China to North America. These plants are often cultivated as ornamental plants or ground cover in gardens. The genus group is part of the Vitaceae, or grape family, and shares many characteristics. Most Parthenocissus plants have broad leaves, a vining habit, and produce grape-like berries each year. The plants are able to produce their berries without pollination. Among the ten species, the most popular varieties are Virginia creeper, Boston ivy, sevenleaf creeper, and woodbine.

All members of Parthenocissus share common characteristics of woody vines, vigorous growth on many tendrils, and the ability to attach to supports through adhesive disks, rather than roots. Many varieties are hardy to -40° F (-39.9° C) and can grow more than 40 feet (12 meters) tall. As ornamental plants, Parthenocissus are both pretty and practical, as a cluster of vines growing up the sides of a house can reduce heating bills in winter and cooling costs in the summer.

Virginia creeper, called Parthenocissus quinquefolia, is a deciduous vine with clusters of five broad leaves. The plant produces small blue or white flowers on reddish stems in the spring, and the leaves turn orange and red in the fall before dropping to the ground. Virginia creeper produces grape-like purple berries which are eaten by birds. This ivy is often found rambling in a garden or thickly covering trees, fences, walls, tellises, and buildings.

Boston ivy, called Parthenocissus tricuspidata, Japanese creeper, or grape ivy, is another deciduous woody vine of the Parthenocissus genus. It produces masses of single leaves of three to five lobes on vining tendrils. It was originally grown wild in China, Japan, and Korea, but has since spread throughout the world. The name Boston ivy comes from its popularity as an ornamental vine in the city of Boston.

Parthenocissus plants grow and spread so vigorously that they can often become invasive nuisance plants, especially in areas that do not receive much winter frost. The plants are also sometimes confused with poison ivy, which has a similar appearance but grows in clusters of three leaves. Some people experience an allergic reaction to the sap of the plants, which contain the irritating chemical raphide. The berries and leaves of the plants are mildly poisonous to humans, but are valuable food plants for birds, which eat the berries, and moth larvae, which eat the leaves.

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