Evergreen and Creepy: It’s Winter Creeper!

Winter Creeper, (Euonymus fortunei), with its glossy evergreen leaves, is easy to spot in the woods right now. This member of the Bittersweet family, (Celastraceae), is native to China, Japan and Korea. Introduced here as an ornamental plant, Winter Creeper, also known as Creeping Euonymus, has escaped cultivation, according to the National Park Service, and is now invasive in most of the eastern states of the U.S.

Winter Creeper, or Creeping Euonymus, with serrated edges. Photo courtesy of John W. Hayden

Serrated edges of Winter Creeper, also known as Creeping Euonymus. Photo courtesy of W. John Hayden

Leaves of Winter Creeper are opposite, with silvery veins, and serrate, or finely-toothed margins; from 1 to 2 1/2 inches long. They are also dimorphic; they have two forms. The leaves that appear on vines climbing upwards may show a widening towards their tips, whereas the leaves of plants on the ground are more narrow at the tips.  The Flora of Virginia states that Winter Creeper is highly variable in form, probably due to the large number of named taxa and cultivars.

Fruit of Winter Creeper, with its pink to red capsules. Photo courtesy of W. John Hayden

Fruit of Winter Creeper; pinkish to redish capsules on long branched stalks. Photo courtesy of W. John Hayden

Winter creeper adapts readily to a wide variety of environmental conditions, from full sun to deep shade, from acidic to basic and low nutrient soils. About the only thing it doesn’t do well in is heavy wet soils. It’s a fast growing plant, covering the ground in dense mats, where it smothers the native plants. Aerial roots enable it to climb upwards also; it can reach heights of 70 feet, giving it the ability to kill a tree by overtopping.

Dehiscent capsules open, revealing seeds with red-orange arils. Photo courtesy of W. John Hayden

Dehiscent capsules open, revealing seeds with red-orange thickened coats called arils. Photo courtesy of W. John Hayden

Twigs are green to brownish or grayish, and are not winged, becoming light gray and corky with age. Fruit produced in the fall takes the form of small, round, pink-red capsules that split open to reveal seeds with red-orange arils. Aril is the name for the thickened seed coat where it attaches to the stalk. You may recognize this feature from having seen it on Yew bushes. 

Not having co-evolved here with either cooperation, or competition, from the native flora and fauna, Winter Creeper does not provide the benefits that native plants do. Although its seeds are eaten by some birds, it forms a monoculture that displaces the variety of food sources that would have been provided by native plants, including food for the abundance of caterpillars needed by songbirds raising fledglings in spring. Many studies are finding that the food value of non-native seeds is not compatible with what native birds require. The phenology, or timing, of when plants leaf out, blossom, and produce fruit is another is another important component of the contribution of native plants to the ecosystem they evolved in. Winter Creeper: don’t let it creep into your garden!

Sue Dingwell

Comments

  1. Beth Umberger says:

    My husband and I were hiking along the James River in Richmond and winter creeper covered the forest floor. It was growing up trees and in fruit. I was surprised when we returned home to find it growing up a tree at the Montgomery Museum. This winter it will be coming out. It also covers areas in Stadium Woods at Virginia Tech. With the help of some forestry students and VT corps, the master naturalist cleared two spots. It did not come back in one spot and only a few plants survived in the other area. Removal is best done in late fall or winter went it uproots easily. We still have one big patch to remove.

    • VNPS Communications says:

      Beth, thank you for taking the time to tell us about your experience with Winter Creeper, and thanks especially for your efforts to remove it!

    • Laura Greenleaf says:

      Hi Beth,
      You are right–Winter Creeper is one of the top worst invasives in the James River Park System here in Richmond, engulfing trees and carpeting the ground in many areas. The Pocahontas chapter of VNPS is one of the lead partners in the JRPS Invasives Task Force. We have an invasive management/habitat restoration plan for the whole 600 acre park system. Check out our website: http://www.jamesriverpark.org/invasives/index.php

      • VNPS Communications says:

        Laura, thanks so much for your comment and your efforts on behalf of the park Bravo for our Pocahontas Chapter, too! Send us your photos of progress, or write up a blog piece to share on our website and Facebook page – send to vnps.org@gmail.com and write Webmaster in the subject line. We’d love to showcase your work.

  2. Lori Wood says:

    I have seen it in Rockbridge county, perhaps in my own yard. Once we’ve pulled it out, what native shrubs could we put in its place?

    • VNPS Communications says:

      Lori, thank for your interest, and your willingness to identify appropriate native replacements. A lot depends on your location and site conditions, as well as what your goals are. On our website we have a page under Growing Natives that has three ‘selection aids’ that give you a chance to select plants based on those things; you can find it here: http://vnps.org/interactive-plant-finders/

      Also under Growing Natives, you can find the Regional Plant Guides available: http://vnps.org/regional-plant-guides-for-virginia/

      Once the spring native plant sales begin, we will publish the dates and locations of those on our website as well, and the sales are another great way to obtain advice from experts in your area as well as plants.

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