basham vines

Native grapevines are a star attraction across the Southern Appalachians.

In most landscape settings, vines tend to be relegated into the “pull ASAP” department. This can be for good reason – tenacious and opportunistic vines can completely engulf trees, shrubs and garden beds if left unchecked for multiple years.

Even worse, some foreign invasive introductions like Chinese bittersweet can strangle large trees like a boa constrictor, eventually cutting off the flow of nutrients and killing its host. In the case of these harmful climbers, it’s a good idea to cut the vine once at ground level and then again at about shoulder height, to prevent the vine from rerooting into the soil.

If the vine doesn’t come off of the tree with a hearty tug, trying again every few months once it’s had some time to dry out will usually do the trick. Exercise caution when removing vines, however, since there are a large number of vines native to the area that are beneficial to local wildlife. Many of our native vines do not damage or kill the plants onto which they cling unless that plant is already declining for other reasons.

Virginia creeper and pipevine are two common native vines that should be left alone whenever possible. Although not optimal in areas expecting foot traffic, poison ivy and the heavily thorned greenbrier are both food and nesting sites for birds, and can normally find a place tucked away in the corners of a property.

Among all of these tangled vines, seen crawling along fence posts and large trees alike, is another commonly overlooked and quickly pulled native vine that is as beneficial as it is prolific. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the native grape vines most likely entwining themselves into your garden as you read this piece are very similar to the European grapes widely used in winemaking today.

The vast majority of wine comes from grapes originating in the Mediterranean, grown in very specific areas that cater to their strict growing requirements. Most of these grapes have been cultivated over thousands of years to have large, sweet fruit, as well as having self-fertile flowers that make it easier for the grower to ensure pollination.

These trait selections have come at a price. Many commercial grapes are highly susceptible to pests and diseases, and they also are not very tough when it comes to environmental stressors like drought or frost. The grapes native to North America, on the other hand, are resilient in a wide range of conditions.

Because of this, traditional grapes are sometimes grafted onto North American grape varieties in order to improve their environmental or disease tolerance. Our native grapevines, while producing edible grapes, tend to have small and tangy fruit that sometimes require a frost or two before they are truly palatable. This doesn’t mean that all of our native grapes aren’t tasty – concord grapes are an American classic, and tough-skinned but delicious muscadine grapes grow especially well in and around the mountains. Overall, however, the true benefits of native grapevines are to local wildlife.

A large number of animals rely on North American grapevines for hearth and home. More than 100 bird species have been documented feeding on the grapes themselves, and the vine’s exfoliating bark is a favorite for nest making, sometimes in a mass of the vine itself.

More than 75 caterpillars are also known to feed on native grape plants, and pollinators flock to their blooms in the summer. If you find some of these important vines encroaching on your garden, I encourage you to trellis the beast instead of exterminating, if possible. Like other grapes, heavily pruning the plant down to four leaders every year after the third will increase the yield significantly.

Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturalist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping, focused on nature education and habitat restoration. He recently published his first book, “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature.” For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.