Vinca major

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Vinca major from Cris SantannaName: Vinca major L.

Family: Apocynaceae, the Dogbane Family

Common Names: Greater periwinkle, large periwinkle, bigleaf periwinkle, large leaved periwinkle, blue periwinkle, Greek periwinkle. It is often simply called periwinkle or myrtle (1,2,5,8,14,18).

Etymology: The generic name, Vinca, is short for the ancient name given by Pliny, Vincaperivinca. Common names for the genus in Italian (pervinca) and French (pervenche) resemble the ancient name. The species name, major, means “larger” (2).

vinca major Will Cook 100108Botanical synonyms: Vinca grandiflora Salisb. (3).

Quick Notable Features (2,12):
¬ Simple, opposite, ovate leaves with ciliate margins and subcordate bases
¬ Perfect, radially symmetric, violet flowers with ciliate calyx lobes, and a pinwheel-like corolla
¬ Each flower produces 2 follicled fruits, 2.5-5cm long

Plant Height: Up to 1-2m tall (2,12).

Subspecies/varieties recognized (3):
V. major subsp. balcanica (Pénzes) Kozuharov & Petrova
V. major subsp. hirsuta Stearn
V. major var. hirsuta Boiss.
V. major var. variegata Loudon

Most Likely Confused with: Vinca minor, Vincetoxicum louiseae, Vincetoxicum rossicum, Lonicera ssp., and Campanula ssp.

Habitat Preference: The greater periwinkle grows in sandy to heavy clay soils, moist to dry, and shaded or full sun (although it prefers shaded areas). In the United States, it usually escapes from cultivation to roadsides, edges of woods, and along rivers (2,10,11).

Vinca leaf Cristine SantannaGeographic Distribution in Michigan: The greater periwinkle was only recently (2009) collected escaped from cultivation in Grand Traverse and Ottawa counties (1).

Known Elevational Distribution: Vinca major can grow from low to high elevations and was collected at 6500m above sea level in Puebla, Mexico (3).

Complete Geographic Distribution: Native to Southern Europe, Anatolia, and Northern Africa. In North America, it is found in the U.S. (AL, AR, AZ, CA, GA, ID, IL, KY, LA, MA, MD, MI, MS, NC, NM, NY, OH, OR, PA, SC, TN, TX, UT, VA, and WA), in BC, Canada, and in Mexico. In Europe, V. major is found in nearly all countries west of Austria, as well as Sweden, Finland, and Greece. The species was introduced to Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, India, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, and Uruguay (1,5,8).

Vegetative Plant Description: V. major is perennial, evergreen, trailing or scrambling, and mostly herbaceous (with a woody caudex). The dark green stems produce milky sap. The stems root at the nodes and apex. The nearly glabrous petioles are short (less than 2.5cm long) and glandular; stipules are absent. The pinnately-veined opposite leaves are 4-ranked and simple, ovate to broad ovate, with a cordate to subcordate base and acute apex. Each ovate leaf is 2-9cm long and 2-6cm broad (broadest near the base), entire margined, ciliate (cilia to 1mm long), covered by a waxy coat (1,2,11,12,16,17).

Climbing Mechanism: V. major scrambles over adjacent vegetation or structures (6). No tendrils, or twining apices are noted in the literature.

Vinca Major flower Cris SantannaFlower Description: Axillary flowers (2.5-5cm across) of the greater periwinkle are solitary, perfect, and actinomorphic. The pedicels are 3-5cm long. The 5 calyx lobes are acuminate, marginally ciliate, 1-1.5cm long, and glandless. The blue to violet (rarely white) corolla is 5-parted, salver-form, with asymmetrical petals twisted like a pinwheel, each 1.2-1.5cm long. The 5 apically puberulent stamens are adnate to the throat of the corolla, alternating with the corolla lobes; the filaments are distinct. The two ovaries are superior, unfused and alternate with two nectaries. The styles and stigmas however are fused. The style (ca. 1.5cm long) is filiform with a hairy capitate stigma (2,4,12,16,17,18).

Flowering Time: In the Central and Northeastern U.S., V. major flowers from April-May (2).

Pollinator: The flowers of V. major have paired nectaries that attract bees, hawkmoths, and other insects to pollinate them (4,10,11,13).

Fruit Type and Description: Each flower produces two short-cylindrical follicles (2.5-5cm long) that taper at the apex. When mature, each follicle dries and opens, releasing 3-5 seeds (2,12).

Vinca major seed USDASeed Description: The seeds of V. major are glabrous: no coma (tuft of hairs) is produced, as is common among Apocynaceae. The seed has a rough surface and is 0.7-1cm long and about 0.2cm wide (2,11,12, see seed image).

Dispersal Syndrome: The follicles open to expose the seeds, and no specific dispersal method was found. In California, the seeds rarely mature. The greater periwinkle reproduces vegetatively by stolons that root at the tips and nodes. Additionally, broken stems can be carried by water and take root (11,12,14,17).

Vinca major bud Cris SantannaDistinguished by: Vinca minor appears like a smaller version of V. major, yet bears a few distinctive features. V. minor has a narrow, not semi-cordate, leaf base; the leaf is broadest in the middle; the leaf and calyx margins are glabrous; and the pedicel is shorter (only 1-1.5cm long). Vincetoxicum louiseae and Vincetoxicum rossicum are not evergreen like V. major, the leaves bases are rounded, and the seeds bear a coma. Vincetoxicum louiseae leaf margins are not ciliate, and the abaxial surface is pubescent. Further, the inflorescence bears 4-12 dark purple flowers, but only one violet flower in V. major. Vincetoxicum rossicum inflorescences bear 5-20 pinkish-red to maroon flowers. Lonicera ssp. are woody throughout, not only at the caudex. Further, the flowers of Lonicera are zygomorphic (actinomorphic in V. major), and produce berries, not follicles. Some species of climbing Lonicera (L. caprifolium, L. sempervirens, L. reticulata, L. dioica, and L. hirsuta) have distinctively connate pairs of leaves under the inflorescence, not present in V. major. Most of the other Lonicera ssp. in Michigan without connate pairs of leaves are shrubs, except for L. japonica, which is also a vine. L. japonica has pubescent young stems and main veins on the adaxial surface of the leaves. Campanula ssp. are non-climbing herbs with alternate leaves and conspicuous blue bell-shaped flowers with one style and three stigmas, the calyx is adnate to the ovary, which produces a three-locular capsule (1,2).

Other members of the family in Michigan (number species): Apocynum (2), Asclepias (12), Vinca (1), Vincetoxicum (2) (source 1).

Ethnobotanical Uses: V. major has many medicinal uses, although many parts of the plant are toxic and not edible, especially the seeds and latex. The plant is used as an astringent, tranquilizer, stomachic, tonic, to control excessive menstrual flow, irregular uterine bleeding, vaginal discharge, hardening of the arteries, nosebleed, sore throat, and mouth ulcers. The greater periwinkle is of great importance for the pharmaceutical industry due to the alkaloids vincamine and reserpine. They are used respectively to stimulate the brain and as a vasodilator, and to reduce high blood pressure. A semi-synthetic alkaloid originated from Vinca, vinorelbine, is used to reduce tumor growth rates, with a higher response rate when used in ovarian cancer, sarcoma, non-small-cell lung cancer, and bladder cancer. Non-medical uses of the plant include basket weaving (9,10,12).

APOCVincamajorMAPPhylogenetic Information: The family Apocynaceae is in the order Gentianales, part of the Asterid I clade of the Core Eudicots. Also part of the Gentianales is Rubiaceae, Gentianaceae, Loganiaceae, and Gelsemiaceae. “Apocynoideae, as well as the old Asclepidaceae and Periplocoideae, form the APSA clade, relationships within which are being clarified” (4). Members in the Apocynaceae and the old Asclepidaceae have similar alkaloids and are used to develop drugs for cancer treatment (9).

Interesting Quotation or Other Interesting Factoid not inserted above:  V. major and V. minor were introduced to the United States in the late 1700s. The greater periwinkle has become seriously invasive in some riparian communities, decreasing biodiversity, tree sapling recruitment, and even interfering with federally threatened species populations such as the pallid Manzanita (Arctostaphylos pallida). In California, V. major is the host of a bacterial disease (Pierce’s disease) that affects vineyards (11). Due to the waxy coat on the leaves of V. major, spraying herbicide as a control method is ineffective. It is recommended that small infestations are hand pulled (with roots), or herbicide can be applied directly to fresh stem cuts and bruises (14). One of the popular ornamental choices is the variegated version of V. major: the green leaves are mottled with cream (15).

Literature and websites used:

  1.  Michigan Flora Online. A.A. Reznicek, E.G. Voss, & B.S. Walters. February 2011. University of Michigan. Web. March 12, 2013.
  2.  Fernald, M.L. 1950. Gray’s Manual of Botany, 8th ed. New York: American Book Company.
  3. Missouri Botanical Garden. 12 Mar 2013 <>
  4. Stevens, P.F. Angiosperm Phylogeny Website. Version 12, July 2012.
  5. USDA, NRCS. 2013. The PLANTS Database (, 03/12/2013). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.
  6. Weed Management Guide: Periwinkle (Vinca major). 2008. CRC for Australian Weed Management.
  7. Britton, N.L. & H.A. Brown 1970. An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canada: Volume III. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.
  8. Global Biodiversity Information Facility Website. Accessed: 13 March 2013.
  9. Conroy, T. 2002. Activity of vinorelbine in gastrointestinal cancers. Critical reviews in oncology/hematology 42(2):173-178.
  10. Plants For A Future, 1996-2012. Accessed: 13 March 2013.
  11. Stone, K.R. 2009. Vinca major, V. minor. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2013, March 14].
  12. Li, B., A.J.M. Leeuwenberg, & D.J. Middleton. Flora of China, Vol.16: Apocynaceae.
  13. Moré, M., A.N. Sérsic, & A.A. Cocucci 2007. Tongued hawkmoth-pollinated species of Mandevilla (Apocynaceae, Apocynoideae). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 94(2): 485-504.
  14. Dreistadt, S.H. 2004. Pests of landscape trees and shrubs: an integrated pest management guide. Oakland, CA: UCANR Publications, Publication 3359. Viewed using Google Books.
  15. Kellum, J. 2008. Southern shade: a plant selection guide. Univ. Press of Mississippi.
  16. Rosatti, T.J. & L.T. Dempster 2012. Vinca major L. in Jepson Flora Project (eds.) Jepson eFlora, [March 14, 2013].
  17. Drewitz, J. 2006–2013. Invasive plants of California’s wildland: Vinca major L. California Invasive Plant Council.
  18. Nazimuddin, S. & M. Qaiser. Flora of Pakistan: Vinca major L.

Image Credits
(all used with permission):
1. Image of entire plant courtesy of Cristine V. Santanna.
2. Image of leaves courtesy of Will Cook at
3. Image of leaf ciliate margin courtesy of Cristine V. Santanna.
4. Image of open flower courtesy of Cristine V. Santanna.
5. Image of seeds courtesy of Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
6. Image of flower bud courtesy of Cristine V. Santanna.
7. Species distribution map, derived from the Michigan Flora Online.

Primary Author: Cristine V. Santanna and John Bradtke, with editing by Robyn J. Burnham.
© Robyn J. Burnham
For additional information on Michigan Plant Diversity species accounts, please contact Robyn J. Burnham via email: rburnham“at”