By Dr. John Nelson
When I was a kid, we all watched the Tarzan movie on TV every Saturday afternoon. Everything stopped for this—all activities ceased—because this was our only afternoon break and our time for thrilling adventures in tropical Africa. There he was, Tarzan, doing his jungly thing and taking to a vine whenever the need occurred, which makes me stop and wonder—what exactly is a vine?
A “vine” is any crawling or climbing plant. The word “vine” comes from an old Latin word that suggests a grape vine, and of course, that makes sense. Throughout the world, there are hundreds of species of plants, within many completely unrelated plant families, which are truly vine-y. Vines are often woody, as in the sort that Tarzan was conveniently able to use, swinging from tree to tree. Vines owe their climbing skill to a variety of techniques. Some are twining, with young stem tips wrapping around their plants. Some vines have tendrils for the same purpose, and still others have specialized holdfasts or grips. English ivy climbs by means of aerial roots, whereas cross-vine and its relatives have specialized leaflets, threadlike and clinging.
Woody vines that are true climbers–rather than crawlers or “scramblers”– have a fancy name, “liana.” Here in the Southeast, we have plenty of lianas, including all of our local wild grapes, but also yellow jessamine, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, English ivy, clematis, confederate jasmine, cat-brier, supplejack, wisteria, and Japanese honeysuckle (the worst weed of them all!). Note that a truly massive liana that might see going way up into a tree didn’t just one day decide to climb that tree. It surely would have hitched a ride over several years and as the tree grew, was able to lift its own weight off the ground. There are also plenty of herbaceous vines, whose tissues are soft, and rather easily cut or broken, and you need go no farther than your vegetable garden to see some. Gourds and their relatives, watermelons and cucumbers, are common in vegetable patches, and beautiful blooms are commonly grown from morning glories and golden black-eyed-susan. Kudzu, the well-known pest, is an introduced member of the bean family. But, to the matter at hand:
Our Mystery Plant is a native woody vine, with dark green, egg-shaped leaves. It’s at home in shady, wet swamps from South Carolina to northern Florida and east Texas, and then again north through the Mississippi valley. It has a few species that are native to western Africa, but Tarzan probably didn’t use them as a means of local transportation! Our plant climbs by means of twining stems tips. It’s a member of the buckwheat family. Small flowers produce narrowly winged fruits, with the old floral parts remaining, attached and dried. Each fruit contains a single seed. The dried, hanging fruits have been fancifully compared to jewelry, and after all, they are quite pretty.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196.
ANSWER: “Buckwheat vine,” “Ladies’ eardrops,” Brunnichia ovata.Tweet