Common periwinkle, Vinca minor, is a low-growing, prostrate, mat-forming, vine-like perennial herb with green, shiny, smooth stems that are woody at the base. It spreads by underground runners or by its vine-like stems that take root at the nodes.
Common periwinkle is native to Europe and western Asia. Often grown as a groundcover, it has proven invasive in much of the eastern United States. Although not as invasive as Japanese honeysuckle and wintercreeper, it is relatively aggressive and can cover large areas, degrading native landscapes. Planting it is not recommended.
The leaves are opposite, simple, evergreen, ½–1½ inches long, ½–¾ inch wide, egg-shaped to equally rounded toward the ends, the tip blunt to pointed, the base rounded or heart-shaped, the margin entire (lacking teeth); upper surface dark green, shiny, smooth, the central vein light green; the lower surface paler, smooth; leaves at the end of twigs often in clusters of 3 or 4, the leaf stalk ½–1¼ inches long, exuding a milky sap when broken.
The flowers emerge from the leaf axils of new stems; lilac to blue, 1 inch across, phlox-shaped, the petals fused at the base into a narrow tube, with the 5 lobes spreading out in a flattened, circular pattern, the tips ending abruptly as if cut off. Blooms March–May.
The fruits are dry capsule that splits on 2 sides; these would mature in late summer and fall, but fortunately, in North America this species almost never develops mature fruits.
Similar species: A close relative, greater periwinkle (Vinca major), is another nonnative plant cultivated as an ornamental groundcover, and it has been recorded as escaping from cultivation in our state. It could be found growing in bottomland forests, rich upland forests, abandoned homesites, or cemeteries. It is distinguished by its larger flowers (1–1½ inches wide) and more robust growth habit with more ascending flowering branches, but the leaves, which are wider and have hairy margins, are not as leathery and tend to drop or be damaged by very cold weather. Greater periwinkle has long been known to become invasive in rich, forested habitats in other parts of the eastern and midwestern United States. Because of its potentially invasive nature, its cultivation is discouraged.
Common periwinkle might be confused with wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), but the leaves in that species have blunt teeth along the margins and the flowers have small, yellowish-white flowers. Also, wintercreeper frequently climbs up trees, fences, and other structures, using aerial rootlets that cling to surfaces, while common periwinkle rarely climbs.
Height: usually to about 6 inches. Stem length: 4–60 inches or more.
Introduced, scattered, mostly south of the Missouri River. Cultivated statewide and can escape into natural habitats statewide.
Habitat and Conservation
Cultivated statewide as a groundcover, common periwinkle can escape into natural habitats or persist long after it has been introduced. In natural habitats, it can become established in bottomland forests and rich upland forests and woodlands and along banks of streams and rivers. You might also encounter it in abandoned homesites, cemeteries, ditches, roadsides, and shaded, disturbed areas.
Although common periwinkle rarely produces viable seeds in North America, it spreads easily by cuttings, as when pieces of plants discarded by gardeners take root in new areas, creating new colonies.
Nonnative plant used as an ornamental groundcover. Potentially invasive. Frequently escapes from cultivation. Because of its potential for outcompeting native plants, it is not recommended for planting in Missouri.
Common periwinkle remains available very commonly in the horticultural trade, but it is not recommended for planting in Missouri. Nearby states have declared it invasive. Vigorous growth and lack of pests are traditionally considered good qualities in garden plants, but experienced gardeners know that plants that are difficult to control present their own set of problems. Also, plants that are not eaten by native insects are failing to fulfill a role in the ecosystem by not feeding insects that in turn become food for birds.
If you appreciate Missouri’s array of beautiful native wildflowers, you should think twice about propagating common periwinkle, as it easily escapes from cultivation by pieces of plants that are discarded by gardeners or that are washed into drainages from nearby plantings. Once it gets established in natural settings, it chokes out native wildflowers such as violets, wake robins, wild ginseng, rue anemones, and dogtooth violets.
Common periwinkle and its relatives produce several chemicals that are extracted and used as cancer-fighting drugs.
Periwinkle is the name of a color (basically a type of lavender blue, or a light shade of purple), and it was named after the flowers of this species. The first use of “periwinkle” in English as a color name was in 1922. The Crayola company introduced its “periwinkle” crayon in 1949.
The name “periwinkle” is derived from Pliny’s Classical Latin name for the plant, vincapervinca, which is basically the same as the scientific genus name; pervinca and periwinkle are cognate words. The name is pervenche in French and pervinca in Italian. Meanwhile, the small sea snails called periwinkles have a different etymology; that word comes from Latin and Greek roots pina, for a type of mussel, and the Old English -wincle, a Germanic, not Latin, word for a kind of snail shell.
When common periwinkle becomes established in native habitats, it can form large mats and outcompete a variety of native plants, degrading and reducing natural ecosystems. With fewer native plants available for pollinators and other native insects, it means less food for nesting birds and other animals that hunt insects.
Common periwinkle’s toxic foliage is unpalatable to mammals, and few animals eat it. With few seeds set, seed-eating birds largely ignore the plant. Additionally, few insects seem to visit the flowers, so it offers little to our native pollinators.
It can serve a purpose in helping to bind soils and prevent erosion, but its stubborn persistence and capacity for suppressing native plants (which can hold soils and prevent erosion just as well) diminish its desirability in that regard.