Vinca vines are tough and beautiful but can be invasive

Few ground covers can fill any area as effectively as periwinkle vine.  There are actually two species commonly used and both have prolific bluish purple flowers. Both also have the ability to spread where they aren’t wanted.

Lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) has smaller shinier leaves and is more invasive in northern regions. It’s sometimes called myrtle and is far more winter hardy. Lesser periwinkle grows here and spreads to surrounding areas, but it’s less aggressive than its cousin the big leaf periwinkle (Vinca major). That one grows quickly. Both species are frequently variegated.

Both species also have smooth edged evergreen leaves that emerge from stems in pairs. Running stems frequently root to the ground. Both bloom in spring and early summer. Sometimes they flower again to a lesser extent in fall.

Big leaf periwinkle makes a great ground cover for use with spring blooming bulbs like daffodils. Its foliage often is tall enough to eliminate the need to deadhead daffodils. This cuts down on maintenance.

Both of these vines, but particularly Vinca major are great for erosion control, especially on slopes. They are cheap, available and easy to establish. They also have few disease or insect problems.

In the southeastern states big leaf periwinkle can take over in any soil type. It tolerates drought, wet soils, poor fertility and some shade. Lesser periwinkle performs better in shady places, and it also tolerates a variety of soil types.

These vines are native to Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East. Unfortunately, like many exotic species both choke out native ones, reducing natural diversity. Both are also commonly listed as very poisonous. I’m not surprised as they are in the dogbane family. However, I think it’s a slight exaggeration as many people make tea from their flowers with no ill effects.

The reason for their inclusion on the highly poisonous list probably stems from confusion with their annual relative. Madagascar periwinkle, one of our most common bedding plants, is quite poisonous to consume. The chemicals in question are alkaloids. Several of various degrees of toxicity can be extracted from all periwinkles.

Many herbalists recommend perennial periwinkles for treatment of diarrhea, high blood pressure, excessive menstruation, sore throat and mouth sores. Many other symptoms are listed, but some claims aren’t substantiated to suit me.

Anyone on conventional medication should always consult their medical professional before using herbal medicines. Preparations containing periwinkle could pose a problem for people on blood pressure medicine or those with chronic constipation.

If eradicating these ground covers is your desire, Round-up will kill them. Important factors to consider are that plants must be in active growth and you must use something to make the spray stick to the slick leaves better. Commercial surfactant or dish detergent will work. However, Round-up doesn’t discriminate. It kills everything, so be careful what you spray.

Broadleaf herbicides like 2,4-D, dicamba, or MCPP will work, too. They’re less likely to hurt your grass but they’ll kill your flowers. Watch the application rates. Too much is a big problem. Spraying when target plants are dormant won’t help much either.

Vinca major likes to climb

Vinca major likes to climb

Big leaf periwinkle close up

Big leaf periwinkle close up

The variegated version

The variegated version

The variegated type goes everywhere too.

The variegated type goes everywhere too.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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