A few weeks ago my wife, Linda, made a special request. “Would you buy me a chain saw,” she asked.
When I asked why, Linda said she had to cut down the grapevines in the woods.
“They’re everywhere. They climb all the trees and kill them. I just want to cut the main stems at ground level,” she explained.
Linda clearly misunderstood the situation so I tried to explain. Grapevines do not kill trees. They are not parasites. They need trees to support themselves as they climb skyward to sunlight.
Furthermore, grapes are an important food for wildlife during the summer months. In fact, next to acorns and other nuts, it can be argued that grapes are the most important wildlife food in deciduous woods.
Bears, raccoons, opossums, skunks, and foxes are among the mammals that relish grapes. Game birds such as turkeys, ruffed grouse, bobwhite, and ring-necked pheasants frequent grape tangles when the fruits are ripe. And virtually all fruit-eating songbirds love grapes. That list includes catbirds, brown thrashers, robins, a variety of vireos and warblers, and even pileated woodpeckers.
Grapevine tangles also offer dense nesting and escape cover throughout the year. Catbirds and thrashers often nest in thickets overgrown by grapevines, and at least 16 species of songbirds use grapevine bark as nesting material.
In fact, I’ve never found a cardinal nest that was not made primarily of grape bark.
I rested my case, and Linda agreed to put off the purchase of a chain saw. “For now,” she said.
Grapevines grow as woody climbing vines. Leaves are simple, large, heart-shaped at the based and often lobed.
Fleshy tendrils originate from the stems and grab onto tree branches to help the vine climb. As grapes ripen later in summer, they become dark blue or black.
Two other woody vines, one benign and one nasty, can be confused with grapes. Virginia creeper climbs like a grapevine and produces small, dark, grape-like fruits that are also important foods for wildlife. Its compound leaves typically consist of five small leaflets.
Poison ivy, a botanical chameleon, can grow as a vine, a shrub, or even a small tree. Its leaflets come in threes (hence the adage, “Leaflets three, let it be.”).
Finally, the surface of the leaves is always shiny, evidence of the oil (ursuhiol) that causes the rash. This irritating oil is present in all plant parts all year long, and it can remain active on dead plant parts for up to five years.
Anytime you suspect you may have encountered poison ivy, wash the exposed skin with soap and water within two hours of exposure to prevent the urushiol from bonding to the skin.
With images of woody vines fresh on our minds, Linda and I spent Mother’s Day weekend along the Allegheny River in Foxburg, Pa. We were there for the annual Nature Fest, and on Saturday morning we scattered on field trips. One man in my group was Bill Paxton, a forester from Latrobe, Pa.
As we wandered the woods along the Allegheny River identifying birds, wildflowers, and trees it felt like a master class in natural history.
At one point Paxton pointed to a tall tree and said, “See how the tree provides access to the canopy for the grapevines? They need the sunlight.”
I then told Bill of my wife’s opinion of grapevines and asked if he could later give Linda a forester’s perspective.
When the morning field trips ended, I introduced Linda to Paxton. She spent the next 10 minutes learning about grapevines from an expert. He pleaded with her to appreciate grapevines.
“They’re just too valuable,” Paxton said.
He also added that grapevines can increase the commercial value of tall trees.
“When grapevines climb tall trees they sometimes prune side branches and leave behind longer, straighter, more valuable logs,” he explained.
But Bill also added that if grapes invaded the yard and aggressively climbed some favorite trees, it would be OK to remove them for aesthetic reasons.
That final concession did the trick. Linda agreed that the ecological value of grapes outweighed their aggressive nature.
“Cancel the chain saw order,” she said.