Although the climbing vine Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), sometimes called woodbine, contains toxic substances, the severity of the chemicals in the plant has not been determined. Pending further investigation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that gardeners be made aware of Virginia creeper's toxic potential.
Virginia creeper is a deciduous, woody vine that is native to large areas of eastern North America, growing in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9. Its vines have tendrils with adhesive discs at the end, enabling it to climb from 30 to 50 feet on stone, brick or wood walls.
The plant is commonly used as a ground cover to control erosion on slopes. It is also grown to hide rock piles, stumps and other eyesores and to cover arbors, fences, trellises and walls.
Leaves typically hide clusters of small, greenish-white Virginia creeper flowers that appear in spring. The flowers later yield small black or dark blue berries. While birds are attracted to the berries, they may be dangerous if a child consumes them in quantity.
The leaves of Virginia look superficially like those of the highly toxic poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans, USDA zones 4 through 10). Poison ivy grows leaves in groups of three. Virginia creeper grows leaves in groups of three. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center at the University of Texas quotes a child's rhyme to help distinguish the two: "Leaves of three, let it be; leaves of five, let it thrive."
Virginia creeper leaves also look like those of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, USDA zones 4 through 8). The leaves of both plants have five leaflets, three large and two small, joined at one point. The critical difference is that ginseng's three large leaflets are joined to the central point by small stems called petiolules. The teeth on the edges of Virginia creeper are larger than the small, fine teeth on the edge of the ginseng leaves. Neither the leaves nor other parts of American ginseng are considered toxic.
Evidence of Toxicity
The FDA cites a report that a child in Oregon became violently ill and died after eating a large amount of Virginia creeper berries. The berries were said to be the probable cause of death. The FDA cites another report that children who had been chewing on Virginia Creeper leaves, began vomiting then collapsed into a two-hour stupor.
Virginia creeper contains calcium oxalate, commonly called oxalic acid, in the form of irritating, needle-like crystals called raphides. The leaves and berries of Virginia creeper contain high amounts of raphides which can irritate the skin of some people.
Two ounces of oxalic acid is enough to kill a human. Whether or not Virginia creeper contains oxalic acid in a free or pure state has not been determined.
If you exhibit a skin rash, upset stomach, dizziness or other symptoms of poisoning after contacting or eating parts of Virginia creeper, call your physician immediately or contact the 24/7 National Poison Control Center hotline at 1-800-222-1222. A hotline operator will transfer your call to the poison control center nearest to you.
As with all climbing vines, Virginia creeper is potentially invasive. Once established, it is difficult to control, climbing onto, up or over everything it encounters including shrubs and trees. It slowly kills plants by smothering them and depriving them of sun.
Virginia creeper is difficult to remove once it becomes established on a wall and and must be pruned regularly to prevent it from spreading out of control.