Creeping fall color: Vines get no respect

It’s been dry in the northeast Iowa woods this year, and the leaf-tourists are disappointed. Instead of the usual mid-October reds and golds, most leaves just wither to dull brown and drop off. Only the vines have leaves left, and they don’t really count, do they?

Wait, where would the woods be without Virginia creeper, wild grape and poison ivy?

This walnut has lost its leaves but Virginia creeper glows

This walnut has lost its leaves but Virginia creeper glows on.

 

Even when the fall trees color up spectacularly as expected, a good share of the drama is added by the vines. Virginia creeper, wild grape and poison ivy are more widespread in American forests than any tree. They may be a bit spineless, depending on tree trunks to reach the light, but they do know how to adapt, growing from northern Mexico to southeastern Canada.

 

 

Part of Virginia creeper’s image problem goes back to its close relation to poison ivy.

Virginia creeps with 5 red fingers, produces purple berries. Green here is an interfering grape.

Virginia creeps with 5 red fingers, produces purple berries. Green here is an interfering grape.

Poison ivy holds on with hairy rootlets, berries are white.

Don’t touch this one. Poison ivy holds on with hairy rootlets, berries are white.

Both VC and PI are in the sumac family and the leaves look similar. However, a Virginia creeper leaf has five prominent fingers, except on a few tiny new leaves. The creeper is not poisonous, unless you eat a bunch of the small purple berries, which look like wild grapes in loose clusters.

 

 

Poison ivy vines have three-leaf clusters and white berries. One reason both vines spread is because animals including birds eat both kinds of berries. No animals are known to be allergic to the urushiol oil in poison ivy, except people.

 

Instead of hairy rootlets, Virginia creeper holds on with tendrils.

Instead of hairy rootlets, Virginia creeper holds on with tendrils.

 

 

 

 

Virginia creeper and poison ivy both cling to tree trunks as they climb, but the creeper holds on with tendrils and the ivy grows a bunch of hairy rootlets along the stem.

Besides providing food for animals, both Virginia creeper and poison ivy also add security to nest sites, provide browse for deer and other animals, and attract insects.

 

Grape vines can be small and green or big and shaggy. They hang on trees without attaching..

Grape vines can be small and green or big and shaggy. They hang on trees without attaching.

The wild grape doesn’t do much for fall color, but of course it is also among the most valuable to other woods inhabitants.  In the woods, grape vines hang like swings in Tarzan’s jungle, unattached to the trees they climb.

A woods without vines would be a room without furniture.

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