In general, it is good practice to glove up and pull any poison ivy in or around areas that receive foot traffic.

Don’t forget the Tecnu poison ivy scrub afterwards. Take your time in identifying the threat, however, because poison ivy can look deceptively similar to one of our most important and attractive native vines.

Virginia creeper creeps its way across most of eastern North America, where it tends to clasp onto trees, shrubs or other surfaces with kraken-like suckers to vine into the sun. This is one of the most common and beneficial native vines in the area, and should be left alone wherever possible in order to provide food, shelter and other benefits to the surrounding wildlife.

Although Virginia creeper’s overly friendly growing habits can starve smaller shrubs and trees of light as the vine slowly grows over top of them, but with a few yearly trims it can be an attractive and beneficial addition to almost any landscape. Maintaining even a single healthy stand of Virginia creeper can lead to impressive increases in the number of beneficial animals taking up residence in your area.

The leaves of Virginia creeper share a very similar shape, with similar cuts and notches, to poison ivy. This is especially true in young leaves, where Virginia creeper vines can possess a hint of scarlet and even the groups of three leaves that are normally poison ivy red flags. As the plant and leaves mature, however, Virginia creeper develops into groups of five leaves instead of three. Poison ivy vines tend to be hairy, while Virginia creeper generally has a smoother and branchier appearance.

Virginia creeper does not possess defensive oils, however the sap contains sharp microscopic crystals that can cause irritation to sensitive skin, so wear gloves when pulling. Although the flowers are subtle and not overly showy, they are attractive to bees and other pollinators in late spring into early summer. The plant features attractive berries and offers an impressive fall display as the leaves turn a brilliant red. It can be used as a groundcover, and is especially useful as such in steep areas prone to erosion. In a garden setting, used as a groundcover, it can be reined in when surrounded by other thugs like switchgrasses, asters or mints.

Otherwise, Virginia creeper is an attractive vine for covering dead standing trees, fences, stone walls or trellises. Once established, the vines take little maintenance besides occasional trimming if it begins to wander. The best way to remove large vines is to cut them at the ground a few inches above the ground. The vine will fall on its own, typically doing less damage than if it had been pulled. 

The benefits that Virginia creeper offer to the wildlife in the area go far beyond its aesthetic values. Although the berries are poisonous to humans, they are used by hundreds of bird species as a staple winter food source, sustaining your backyard chirpers in their most desperate times.

Other woodland creatures like squirrels, deer and chipmunks feed on the foliage. Virginia creeper is also extremely important to a variety of moths and other insect species who use it to raise their young. I recommend this plant to any gardener, as it’s one of those unique plants that is native to the area, easily found and grown, and beneficial to a wide range of imperiled wildlife.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.