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The Monday Garden
Great Americans; "Five-Fingered" Woodbine

Issue No. 0130 - September 19, 2004
by Sue Sweeney

The solstice is appropriate to recognize our native woodbine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), a handsome, hardy member of the grape family. One of its common names is “five-fingered ivy”, not for any larcenous intent on the vine’s part, but for the 5 leaflets of its compound leaf. In full sun, it produces dark blue-purple fruit that clearly reflex its grape heritage and contrast beautifully with its red stems.

Picture: Woodbine in fruit at Scalzi Park, Stamford CT, Late August 2004.

Surprised that woodbine fruits? It doesn’t in the shade and it doesn’t when its new growth is trimmed off every year. However, think about how it showed up under the tree in your garden: it had to come by bird-gut, right? And that requires an edible fruit or seed.

The birds, squirrels and other fauna munch the berries up in short order which is another reason why you might have missed seeing the lovely fruit. A number of insects (and of course, deer) feed on the leaves. Sadly, you can’t share in the bounty, except vicariously through your songbirds and squirrels, because the berries are reportedly seriously toxic to humans. The leaves, particularly in autumn, may also cause an allergic reaction in humans, so test your sensitivity before handling large quantities of the foliage.

In the garden, woodbine’s a great, care-free groundcover for shade. It’s often used by conservation managers for erosion control and watershed protection. Try it mixed with ferns, spring bulbs, summer lilies, fall-blooming native asters, and dog violets. It’s also wonderful on a wall or fence. A fast way to cover chain link fence is to start a bunch of woodbine cuttings in the spring. It roots easily in water. The seeds need to chill for at least 60 days before germinating, and sometimes don’t sprout until the second year, so cuttings are the quickest way to go. In the moist shade, woodbine is subject to powdery mildew and anthracnose so try to give it at least filtered sun.

Picture: Woodbine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) with ferns and a birch log
(and a little poison ivy right in front of the garlic mustard) Bartlett Arboretum, Summer 2004.

Woodbine’s hardy Zone 3b to Zone 9, so all North Americans from Ontario to Mexico can enjoy its beauty. However, don’t let woodbine start climbing your shrubs or trees because it will overwhelm them. (Admittedly, woodbine, capable of a 60-foot stretch, is a bit larcenous when it comes to who gets the sun). Don’t let it start up your masonry either, because, like many ivies in its family, it has tiny adhesive pads on the tips of its tendrils that aren’t so good for the grout.

Picture: woodbine decorating a stone wall, Bedford Street, Stamford CT, June 200

While the bare, silver-gray, woody vines in winter don’t appeal to all tastes; the bronzy new leaves in late spring, the handsome summer green accented by a touch of red, and the striking reds and purples in fall, all add to the garden. I like it so much that I have one as a bonsai on my balcony.

Pictures: Woodbine shows its early seasonal beauty, Stamford, CT 2004


Picture: Woodbine on a fence (with rosa mulitflora) in Revonah, Stamford CT 2003

Woodbine can be confused with poison ivy since they often grow in the same place and have similar coloring. Woodbine, though, is the FIVE FINGERED ONE.

Here are pictures showing both:


pictures: Can you tell the difference between poison ivy and woodbine in these pictures?


picture: Bedford Street, Stamford CT, June 2004.


picture: Cove Island, Stamford CT, fall 2003

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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