Common Name: Wintercreeper
Scientific name: Euonymus fortunei
Identification: Wintercreeper is variable in form, and can be a spreading groundcover, a shrub, or a clinging vine. The juvenile form of this species is a groundcover that spreads horizontally, forming new roots where stems touch the ground, and is rarely over 1’ tall. It can mature into rounded shrubs, 1½-3’ tall, and if a suitable structure is available to climb on, the mature form can also form a vine up to 70’ in length. The vine form attaches to structures with aerial roots.
The leaves are opposite each other in pairs, are toothed along the edges, and have a leathery or waxy texture. Leaves are egg-shaped to elliptical, are usually small (1 – 2” long), and are evergreen through winter. The species leaves are dark green with light veins, but the color of leaves can vary widely between cultivated varieties. Mature wintercreeper (shrub or climbing vine) can form flowers and fruit. The flowers form in clusters and each flower is ¼” across with four white to green petals in early summer. The fruits, also ¼” in diameter, hang in clusters and have pink to white coats that split open in mid-to-late fall revealing orange fruit.
Look-alikes: Wintercreeper is somewhat similar to running strawberry bush (E. obovatus), a native woodland groundcover. However, the leaves of the native species are neither waxy nor evergreen. Also, the native species does not have a vine form and remains low-growing at maturity.
Wintercreeper is reported infrequently in the Great Lakes region. It has been reported in near Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland and Rochester, NY. It is has not been found in Minnesota or in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is generally only considered hardy to Zone 5, which likely limits its distribution in the Great Lakes region, though its range may adjust northward in the future due to climate change. Nationally, wintercreeper is most frequently reported as invasive in the greater Midwest and in the Northeastern U.S.
Additional invasive species distribution data for specific Great Lakes jurisdictions are available via:
Wintercreeper seeds are spread by birds, which eat the fruit. Once established in a location, wintercreeper plants spread vegetatively both horizontally and vertically. It creeps across land, establishing new roots where stems touch the ground. When spreading stems encounter trees or other structures, they will grow vertically as vines, attaching by aerial roots, and eventually reaching the canopy.
Wintercreeper primarily invades various forested habitats including riparian forests, forest edges, forest openings, woodlots, and both wet and dry deciduous forests. Its shade tolerance allows it to thrive in relatively undisturbed forests if seed is introduced.
When first establishing, wintercreeper will quickly spread over the forest floor and excluding other understory plants. When it matures, wintercreeper vines climb and overtop shrubs and trees, blocking their access to light and leaving them more vulnerable to storm damage. Evidence also suggests that wintercreeper invasions increase the rates of decomposition and nutrient cycling on the forest floor, altering the soil bacterial community in ways that benefit wintercreeper growth (Bray et al. 2017, Smith and Reynolds 2012)
Wintercreeper can be a problem in commercial woodlots because it prevents native trees from regenerating.
Wintercreeper was introduced to North America as an ornamental groundcover. It is popular for this use due to its evergreen leaves, the variety of patterns and colors available through cultivars, and its adaptability to growing conditions.
Wintercreeper can be maintained as a groundcover to prevent it from fruiting. If it is contained by hardscaping and if any stems that start climbing vertically are trimmed, the plant will not produce fruit. However, in practice, wintercreeper is frequently grown next to buildings, trees, and fences and is allowed to climb on these surfaces, leading it to produce fruit that can be spread to natural areas.
New York State has exempted two dwarf cultivars of wintercreeper from its point of sale labeling regulation. Horticultural sources indicate that these cultivars are not fully sterile, but as dwarf varieties, they climb less aggressively than other types and form flowers and fruit only sporadically at maturity (Dirr 2008, Missouri Botanical Garden).
Please see our Landscape Alternatives landing page for more information about how the WIGL Collaborative selected alternatives.
|Alternatives for Wintercreeper
Common name (Latin name)
|Spreading groundcover||Winter color||Low maintenance|
|Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)||✔||✔||a|
|Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)||✔||✔|
|Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)||✔||~b|
|Low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)||~c||a|
|European ginger (Asarum europaeum)||✔||✔|
|Lenten rose (Helleborus sp.)||✔||~d||✔|
Green = native to part of the Great Lakes Basin
Blue = not native but not invasive
~ = trait is somewhat present but not as pronounced as in check-marked examples
a Both bearberry and low-bush blueberry require acidic soil. They both thrive in moist sandy soils, which tend to be acidic.
b Like wintercreeper, Virginia creeper can be aggressive and can climb overtopping and damaging other plants if not maintained.
c Low-bush blueberry is a short growing shrub, but in the right conditions, it will spread from the roots and through self-seeding.
d In the Great Lakes region, Lenten rose will bloom in early spring.
The following is a brief overview of management techniques shown to be effective on Wintercreeper. For more detailed information on how to use these techniques, visit our Management and Control page. For local assistance managing woody invasive species, please get in touch with a cooperative invasive species management group or a university extension program.
Timing and spread concerns: Whenever possible, plants should be controlled before they begin climbing vertically, both due to relative ease of treatment and to prevent fruiting. If control is undertaken when vines are climbing, it should be assumed that fruit is present, and it is best not to remove the plants from the site to avoid spreading seed.
Physical control: While in the juvenile (horizontal creeping) phase, wintercreeper can be pulled from moist soil. If the root system is dense, a digging or grubbing tool can be used to fully remove the roots. If soil disturbance is considerable, seeding or planting with native plants may help prevent reinvasion by wintercreeper or another invasive plant. In areas with dense carpets of juvenile wintercreeper, it may be possible to treat it by staking down thick (6 mil) opaque black plastic sheeting to block its access to light (Zouhar 2009). It may take more than one growing season of being covered to kill the plants. Methods that involve top-killing without follow-up with herbicide (mowing, grazing, prescribed fire etc.) are not recommended as they promote root suckering and can make the infestation grow more vigorously.
Chemical control and combined approaches: Foliar and cut stump applications are effective on this species. Foliar application should only be used on plants that have not climbed into trees. Treatment is ideal in early spring or late fall to avoid off-target damage to other plants. Due to the waxy cuticle on wintercreeper leaves, multiple foliar applications may be required. Addition of a non-ionic surfactant and adjuvant to the herbicide mix following directions on herbicide label may improve the effectiveness of foliar treatment on this species (Bloomington Urban Woodlands Project). Climbing vines can be cut close to the base and herbicide applied to the cut surface of the stump. This can be done year-round, but may be most effective in the fall. It is not uncommon for treated stumps to produce new growth.
With any treatment it will be necessary to monitor for and treat regrowth.
Resources on management of wintercreeper:
- Bloomington Urban Woodlands Project. Controlling wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei). 4/10/2020.
- Bray, SR, Hoyt, AM, Yang, Z and MA Arthur. 2017. Non-native liana, Euonymus fortunei, associated with increased soil nutrients, unique bacterial communities, and faster decomposition rate. Plant Ecology. 218(3): 329-343.
- Dirr, MA. 1998. Euonymus fortunei In: Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Fifth Edition. Champlain, IL: Stipes Publishing. 359-363.
- Missouri Botanic Garden. Euonymus fortunei ‘Kewensis’ In: Plant Finder Database. 8/1/19.
- Smith, LM and HL Reynolds. 2012. Positive plant-soil feedback may drive dominance of a woodland invader, Euonymus fortunei. Plant Ecology. 213(5): 853-860.
- Zouhar, K. 2009. Euonymus fortunei In: Fire Effects Information System (Online). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. 8/1/19.
Photo: Chris Evans, University of Illinois, via bugwood.org