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Home vines can turn leafy grip into stranglehold

Though many people love the look of a brick home blanketed by a creeping vine, some regret the maintenance.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 19, 2002

HYDE PARK -- When P.J. Summerville-Eldridge and her husband, Kip, moved into their home on Richardson Place nine years ago, it took awhile to get used to motorists stopping out front to take pictures.

The red-brick home's front is covered top-to-bottom and two-feet thick with creeping fig.

Summerville-Eldridge calls it "hedge house."

"It's a great conversation piece," she says.

The house has been there for 80 years, and the vine, 40 years. But it doesn't take decades for a vine to blanket the front of a home.

About 15 years ago, Pat and George Cappy planted a handful of vines along the outside of their English Tudor home on Bay to Bay Boulevard.

"It kind of moved slow at first and you could still tell where the individual plants were," says Pat Cappy.

But now, the vines have taken on a life of their own.

They invade her gutters and grow down into her chimney, latching onto the house's ductwork.

Over on Richardson, the creeping fig crept through a window at Summerville-Eldridge's house.

"One night we heard a crash and my husband and I woke up wondering, 'What was that?' thinking it was one of our teenagers coming home," she recalls.

It was actually a huge chunk of vine that was pulled from the house by its own weight and landed on top of the carport.

Those are the types of problems you can expect if you allow a vine to grow on your home's exterior.

"It looks great on the house, but if it were my house I wouldn't plant it," says Mark Humphrey, owner of Mark's Landscaping. He's been maintaining the vines on the Richardson Place house since 1987.

Every two or three months, he spends at least half a day thinning and trimming new growth away from the windows and roof.

"You're going to want to think about long-term effects if you're planting that on your house," Humphrey says. "It will start doing damage to your house if you don't maintain it."

The plants hold moisture against the house that can cause mildew to grow on the inside walls.

"If you have wood it will be four times as bad. It's not as strong as brick. It will rot the wood away," Humphrey says.

They also attract possums, rats, wasps and other wildlife, which like to make their homes in the twisting branches. Vines will latch onto woodwork around windows and on the soffits and fascia, and when it's pulled away, it takes paint with it, leaving tiny star-shaped marks where the vine was attached.

Plus, the vines can do serious structural damage. Roots are strong enough to grow between bricks and break them apart.

The vines are more appropriate growing on a wall or fence around the perimeter of the property instead of directly on the house, Humphrey says.

Ivy, which is commonly seen growing on houses in northern climes, doesn't do well in Florida because it's too hot. Creeping fig, says Humphrey, is typically what you'll find on Florida houses. It's drought tolerant and will grow in either full sun or shade.

Calling creeping fig hardy may be an understatement. Some call it invincible.

"Once you have it, you'll never get rid of it," Humphrey says. "The roots grow under the ground and the vine will pop up elsewhere.

"I've cut huge sections down before and within a year it grows back up and you don't even know it was cut."

Cappy says she wishes someone would have warned her about the pitfalls of permitting a vine to grow on her house, and she's sorry she planted it, although she has to admit, "It does look kind of neat."

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