Sunday, October 16, 2011

Virginia Creeper -- © Dave Spier

Virginia Creeper at Montezuma Audubon center, Savannah, NY - © Dave Spier
I had stopped to check a "birdy" looking thicket [a habitat likely to hold a variety of birds] on my way home. Chip calls sounded like a cardinal, but I wasn’t sure. As I scanned the bushes, a mockingbird flew in and began eating the Virginia Creeper berries. The loose clusters of dark bluish-black fruits resemble wild grapes, but the dark-pink stems serve as a warning to people. Beware – due to oxalic acid, they are poisonous and potentially fatal if you eat enough of them. Apparently they have no effect on birds which have very different digestive systems than humans. (Remember, birds evolved from – or at least with – dinosaurs.) I can't remember whether I found a cardinal.

Virginia Creeper (also called Woodbine and Five-leaved Ivy) is a common woody vine, especially in lowland swamps. The one feeding the mockingbird was growing in a buckthorn bush at the edge of a damp meadow beside the road.

Creeper vines are related to grapes, but the leaves are very different. They are divided into five coarsely toothed leaflets arranged in a radial (spoked) pattern from the main leaf stem. In late spring, insignificant pale or greenish flowers grow in irregular clusters and these become the fruits of fall. As the leaves turn color and drop off, the berries become easier to find. Because of the attractive bright red or burgundy foliage in the fall, this plant is sometimes grown as an ornamental. On the other hand, if trying to remove this plant from a building, cut the main stem at the ground and wait for the adhesive pads to die and lose their grip. Ripping it off too soon could damage the surface.

Both species of Virginia Creeper climb by means of forked tendrils. Parthenocissus quinquefolia has tiny suction-like disks on the end of each tendril; P. inserta does not.

Native Americans used parts of the plant to treat jaundice, gonorrhea, and diarrhea. Mixed with vinegar it was used for lockjaw and wounds. Given the poisonous nature of the plant, I assume they first thoroughly dried Woodbine to remove the oxalate crystals.

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