A tall, deciduous climber, reaching to the tops of lofty trees, free from down in all its parts; stems slender, reddish at first, clinging to its support by means of a disk at the end of each branch of the tendril. Leaves composed of five leaflets (sometimes three) radiating from the end of a common stalk 1 to 4 in. long. Leaflets oval to obovate, 1 to 4 in. long, 1⁄3 to 21⁄2 in. wide, slenderly pointed, tapered at the base to a stalk 1⁄5 to 1⁄2 in. long, coarsely toothed except at the base; dull green above, pale and rather glaucous beneath. Inflorescence several times forked, the final subdivisions terminated by an umbel of three to eight flowers. Fruits globose, about 1⁄4 in. wide, blue black.
P. quinquefolia (including its varieties) is widespread in eastern and central N. America as far south as Florida and Texas. It was in cultivation in 1629, and by the early part of the 18th century had become, according to Miller, ‘as common as if it were a Native of the Country’. It is one of the finest of all climbers, its leaves turning a rich crimson before they fall. As it clings of itself to walls and tree trunks it is very useful. At Kew, without artificial support, it has climbed the naked trunks of lofty pine trees and reached the tops. Towards the end of the last century it became quite scarce in cultivation, having been replaced mainly by the Japanese creeper P. tricuspidata, but partly by P. inserta, a species without the sucker disks on its tendrils, and therefore not able to attach itself to flat surfaces. But at the beginning of this century various forms of it were reintroduced, and no doubt the old Virginia creeper could still be found (though nowadays the Japanese creeper is much commoner).
From the above, and from the accounts of P. inserta and P. tricuspidata, it will be seen that three species bear the name Virginia creeper. The present plant, P. quinquefolia, is the true Virginia creeper, but the name has also been used for P. inserta, and not altogether wrongly, for it is at least American, and closely allied to P. quinquefolia. But there can be no excuse for using the name Virginia creeper for P. tricuspidata, which is a native of Japan.
P. quinquefolia appears to be a variable species, but the published accounts do not give a clear picture of the variations and their geographical distribution f. engelmannii (Rehd.) Rehd. Ampelopsis quinquefolia var. engelmannii Rehd.; Vitis engelmannii Dieck; Ampelopsis engelmannii Spaeth – This differs botanically only in its smaller leaflets. But the plants distributed commercially, possibly from seeds collected by Engelmann, were said to differ in their blue-green leaflets and good autumn colouring.
var. hirsuta (Pursh) Planch. Cissus hederacea var. hirsuta Pursh; Ampelopsis graebneri Bolle; A. quinquefolia var. graebneri (Bolle) Rehd. – A distinct variety with hairy shoots, leaf-stalks, leaflets (both surfaces), and inflorescence. The cultivated plant originally named Ampelopsis graebneri, which belongs here, was also distinguished by its intense autumn colouring.
var. murorum (Focke) Rehd. Ampelopsis hederacea var. murorum Focke; Parthenocissus radicantissima Koehne & Graebn.; Ampelopsis muralis Hort. – According to Rehder, this is the more southern form of the species, with tendrils that have shorter, more numerous branches, and with usually broader leaflets. Some at least of the cultivated plants belonging to this variety are characterised by a very close, self-clinging habit.
var. saint-paulii (Koehne & Graebn.) Rehd. P. saint-paulii Koehne & Graebn.; Vitis quinquefolia var. saint-paulii (Koehne & Graebn.) Bean – Young shoots, leaf-stalks, and under-surface of leaflets as well as midrib above clothed with down of a finer nature than in var. hirsuta, from which it also differs in the sharper, deeper teeth. This variety was described from plants distributed by Saint-Paul-Illaire of Fischbach, which were said to make good wall-climbers. It also occurs in the wild.