Can a Virginia creeper hurt my tree?
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Issue: January 8, 2005

Can a Virginia creeper hurt my tree?

Question:

Should I be concerned with Virginia creeper growing within my sycamore? Are there any other factors with which we need to be concerned to maintain the overall health of a tree that has Virginia creeper growing inside the crown? I believe Virginia creeper is shade tolerant and can do well within the crown of a tree in partial shade, but I keep thinking of a locust tree I saw where the Virginia creeper vine had almost completely covered the crown. It is an old tree and appears to be all but dead. Of course, the tree may have died of other causes and the vine just took its place. Who knows?

Answer:

For accuracy's sake, this may be western woodbine rather than Virginia creeper. There is not much difference between these vines, and the exact identification doesn't change the answer. The Western woodbine has tendrils that twine around stems and climbs other plants, fences, etc. The tendrils of Virginia creeper terminate in small attachment disks (somewhat like small versions of an octopus' disks).

The potential damage results mainly due to competition between the vine and the tree. The vine and tree compete for light in the canopy. If the vine covers the leaves of the tree, it may significantly weaken the tree by reducing the tree's ability to feed itself through photosynthesis. As long as the tree has a significant percentage of its leaves in the sunlight, this is not a great concern.

The tree and the vine also compete for water. This is probably why the locust tree is dying. Of course, the age of the tree (this is a very large, old tree) and other factors are also considerations.

Finally, girdling of the tree by the vine is possible, but usually the vine grows vertically and only gradually wraps around the trunk. If the vine slips and reattaches, you may get a girdling situation. I have seen the Virginia creeper/woodbine girdle itself.

There is a potential that the vine can weaken the tree through competition and a slight chance of damage by girdling. It is not in the best interest of the tree but probably not a major concern. Watch for signs of girdling, irrigate enough for both, and things should be okay. However, once the vine begins girdling high up in the tree, just cutting the lower part of the vine may not be sufficient because the woody vine will persist and continue to girdle the trunk for years until the vine rots or the tree top dies, whichever comes first. (The top of the tree will probably die first.)

The vine does add interest to the landscape in the autumn with its beautiful fall color, and its fruit are attractive to birds. It becomes necessary to make a subjective decision. Consider the following: Do the potential hazards outweigh the benefits? Is there evidence of problems? If problems develop in the future, is there potential for damage to structures or hazards for people?


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Send your gardening questions to:
Yard and Garden, ATTN: Dr. Curtis Smith
NMSU Cooperative Extension Service
9301 Indian School Road, NE, Suite 112
Albuquerque, NM 87112

Curtis W. Smith, Ph.D., is an Extension Horticulture Specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator.