Thursday, October 8, 2009

LOOK FOR: Bright Red Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper is one of the first signs of fall in the DC area. You should notice its leaves (each made of five leaflets, in a palmate form, alternating up the vine) turning red soon.

The scientific name for Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, literally means "five-leaved virgin-ivy." (Perhaps starting the name with partheno, or virgin, was an old-school pun on the plant's common name.) Some people call it five-leaved ivy, though it's in a different family from the other "ivies" we know, and certainly won't make you itch like poison ivy (which, you'll remember, has three leaves).

But Virginia creeper and poison ivy do share the characteristic of turning red early in the fall. Most plants turn color simply because they're giving up on photosynthesis for the year, and they're losing the chlorophyll that turns their leaves green. But these vines have evolved to turn red a little earlier than they really need to. It turns out that they're colorful around the time that their berries are ripe, which serves as a loud announcement to birds to come and check them out. The extra advantage in seed spreading must be worth trading off for the extra bit of energy the plants might gain by photosynthesizing for a little longer.

In the wild: Virginia creeper grows throughout the DC metro area, and can live in many different environments -- sunny and shady, wet and dry. If you learn to spot it this fall while it's red, perhaps you'll it notice next year while it's green.

In your yard: Virginia creeper is considered fairly aggressive -- it can take over an area if you don't stay on top of it. But this characteristic can make it a good solution for an area that needs covering -- an ugly fence, a wall, or as William Cullina suggests, "an old rusty Chevy out in the yard that is becoming an eyesore."

Like the photos in this post? Mouse over for credits; a click takes you to the photographer on Flickr.