What is a vine? In simple terms, it’s a plant with a trailing or climbing stem- or even more simply, a stem that doesn’t stand upright. There are a good amount of vines out in the woods and fields, and over time I’ll be looking at some common ones to be seen in Ohio (and for that matter across much of North America).
This is a good time of year to start examining vines, because autumn is the fruiting season. You may very well have been on a walk and noticed some vine berries. I’ll start this series by talking about one that we all recognize- from the grocery store.
First of all, here’s a look at a vineyard grapevine, an agricultural crop:
Now, here’s something I saw growing a few weeks ago in a thicket of bushes at a state park:
Looks about the same, doesn’t it? While the first picture is of cultivated grapes, the second is a Wild Grape- this is where all of those cultivated varieties come from.
Grapevines are notable enough that a thousand years ago the Viking explorers called the east coast of North America ‘Vinland’ in reference to them. Now that’s a noticeable and historic plant!
Wild Grapes are a common vine to be seen in eastern and central North America (and worldwide, too). This surprises some people, who don’t realize they are walking by a great number of wild fruit growing all around them.
Actually, to be technical, there are dozens of species of Wild Grapes, and at least half a dozen of these are common in Ohio. But Wild Grapes as a whole are an interesting vine. They pretty much grow everywhere that plants grow- in the woods, along fencerows, in bushes and thickets. It’s easy to miss them as you walk along, because they blend in with the ‘general greenery’ that many of us don’t pay particular attention to. But they are there, and when you start noticing them, you realize that there are a lot of grapevines out there.
It sometimes seems that when I’m on a hike through a park that I’m walking through a wild vineyard. Its flowers are very inconspicuous- looking sort of like green fuzz- but it’s the autumn fruit that really stands out and then you say, ‘So that’s what that is!’
The grapes themselves aren’t always as big as the delicious cultivated varieties at the store, but they clearly are grapes. This is a significant food source for wildlife.
I spotted this young Robin eating some grapes last month. Think of all the millions of grapevines out there, bearing fruit in the chilly weather. This is a good source of food, especially for birds that turn to berries when insects are in short supply from the cold. Wildlife eats the grapes and then excretes the seeds, which can lay in the soil for years before sprouting when conditions are favorable. This happens so often that believe me, Wild Grapes are in no danger of becoming scarce.
Another interesting thing- the above grapevine was most of the way up a tree. Wild Grape has been called a ‘climbing shrub’ for a good reason- not only can it grow high around other vegetation, but it can bush out into a large mass. This can sometimes even harm the tree or bush it is climbing by blocking off much-needed sunlight.
This is a typical climbing grapevine- it’s what they do. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly (well, most of them do), and vines gotta climb!
Here’s a grapevine growing across the ground. If it doesn’t find something to climb, it’ll do just fine down there. The vine itself, when mature, becomes woody and looks shredded (look at my first picture after the cultivated grape image for an example).
I know what you’re thinking- if birds can eat them, what about me? Sure, wild grapes will often taste very tart but they are quite edible- just be careful and know exactly what you are eating! Both Native Americans and settlers found uses for it, not only to eat but for making dyes from the fruit and weaving baskets with the vine. We now eat their fruit and make wine from them, which is very useful.
Fences are often targets of Wild Grape vines. This may drive some homeowners to distraction, but I think it’s a great look.
And to close on a literary note, the great poet Robert Frost wrote a poem involving Wild Grapes.