Virginia creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia and False Virginia creeper Parthenocissus inserta are common and decorative. They are favourites with gardeners, who train them to grow up walls of houses and pubs where they give cover and autumn colour. They’re vigorous climbers, deciduous, perennial, and develop woody stems.
They are also classed as an invasive plant species in the UK as they can swamp trees and bushes. Coupled with this, their berries are poisonous and may cause blistering and rashes.
But how can you tell these two similar species apart?
Virginia creeper above and False Virginia creeper below
Virginia creeper and False Virginia creeper both have palmate leaves, made from five leaflets. With the former, these have hairy leaf stalks. The latter has smooth stalks. Virginia creeper leaves are a dull green, with hairs on the underside and on the veins. False Virginia creeper leaves are a brighter and shinier green, and are glabrous (hairless) underneath. The teeth on the leaf margin differ too. the former has coarse teeth, the latter has sharper dentition.
Comparing species: Flowers
Flowers of both species are small and greenish, in fact, you may never have noticed them. With Virginia creeper, there are more flowers per cluster, and they come from a clearly defined central stalk. With the False creeper, the flowers are smaller, less green, and have strongly reflexed petals. This is a diagnostic. Both species have flowers with creamy yellow anthers.
Comparing species: Fruit
The fruit aren’t much help to us, to be honest. Both species have blue-black berries, borne on a stem flushed red. They may have bloom. The berries of the False creeper grown in a “dichotomously branched bunch” (which seems to mean there’s no clear central axis) but I think it’d be tough to tell them apart by fruit alone.
Comparing species: Stems
The Virginia creeper has a pale brown stem, with non-flaking bark. In the False creeper, the stem is clearly swollen at the nodes. It doesn’t have flaking bark. You can also detect pale lenticils which are absent in VA creeper.
Comparing species: Tendrils and suckers
This is the give away when it comes to telling these plants apart. The Virginia creeper has tendrils which branch 5 to 8 times, and are stursy. Vitally, each tendril terminates with an adhesive disc. These suckers act like glue-pads, helping the plant attach and climb up the substrate. They’re instantly visible, even in winter, as dark discs at the end of each tendril.
Virginia creeper sucker
False Virginia creeper also has tendrils. these are far less divided, with only 3 to 5 branches. There are no adhesive disks. the tendrils terminate in an elegant thin tip.
The easiest way to separate these two similar species is to look for the tendrils. Suckers mean it’s Virginia creeper, no suckers mean you have a False Virginia creeper. Failing this, look for leaf colour and hairiness, and whether the flowers are reflexed or not.
But in either case, enjoy the brilliant scarlet and crimson colour that these leaves turn when autumn comes around.
For a blog on how to paint the leaves of the False Virgina creeper click here. Useful resources for this blog have included “Invasive Plant and Animal Species of Britian” by Booy, Wade, and Roy; and various pages which mostly are keen to differentiate between Virginia creeper and Poison ivy (like this one from Dave’s Garden).
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