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Virginia Creeper

Posted Nov 21 2008 3:08pm

Autumn has now definitely arrived, although temperatures are still very high for the time of year and you can still go out without a coat. But the trees are starting to change colour, and the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is glorious at the moment.

I love Virginia Creeper. My grandparents used it in their garden to hide the area where they kept the dustbin, and here in Milan it's very common on balconies. People grow it up wires and trellises at the front of the balcony, to shield the house from both the summer sun and the eyes of the neighbours in the buiding opposite. I don't have any, because it would take too much space away from the other things, but I enjoy watching my neighbours' vines turning to brilliant vermilion every winter. Our caretaker, who has to sweep the fallen leaves off the path every morning, may well have a different opinion.

On a balcony it's relatively easy to keep under control, but in a garden it can run riot if you don't cut it back. It can grow to 50 feet, and once established is almost impossible to get rid of, as it spreads from rhizomes. It's quite happy anywhere in zones 3-10 too, so don't bother hoping the weather will do the job for you. If you plant it, you've got to be willing to love it.

On the canal which runs close to us, it's started growing wild. The local authorities always used to keep the canal banks tidied, but in the past few years they've been left to their own devices. And nature has just taken over. The Robinias are leaning drunkenly into the water, with Virginia Creeper wound insidiously around trunks and branches, then drooping downwards so that it almost obscures the tree completely.

Will it eventually kill off the trees if it's not kept under control? The web seems divided, with some sources saying that it will deprive the trees of light and kill them that way, and others saying no, they'll co-exist quite happily.

While I was browsing though, and trying to find out, I came across this bit of information on the meaning of the name at

Parthenocissus is a backward translation (and a rather lame one, frankly) from the English, with a healthy dose of poetic license. Partheno- means "virgin" (as in "Virginia") and cissus translates as "ivy."

If you weren't already convinced that Latin names are crazy, that should just about do it I reckon.

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