Halloween is almost here and people are getting all excited to scare each other. I love a good fright now and then too. Last year I talked about some seasonally scary plants, but I really didn’t mention a few that truly creep me out. These are the ones that will sneak up on you as you sit quietly and tickle the back of your neck (or in my case, stem) causing you to jump and scream like a little girl. If you sit too long, their strangling tendrils will creep over you like an oozing shadow covering you in the night. They are the fearsome vines of fall.
The first is the Virginia Creeper. The name says it all – it’s native and it’s creepy. This vine grows thirty to fifty feet tall when possible. It likes to climb, but is not afraid to creep along the ground if required. This vine has tendrils with little adhesive tips that help it cling to just about anything. It happily covers a wall but just as easily scrambles up a tree. Virginia Creeper can be extra scary because it sometimes look like poison ivy. But if you look carefully, it has five leaflets instead of three. When you know this, you can snicker at it like a parent does to a “scary” trick-or-treater that comes to the door (“Isn’t it cute”). It does have a redeeming quality. Early each fall the jagged leaves turn a beautiful crimson, creating a beautiful accent of color just before many trees turn themselves.
Poison ivy is another dangerous vine in the fall. Everyone knows that this vine can cause all sorts of itchy rashes if you come into contact with it. All parts of the plant produce urushiol, the compound that causes the nasty rash, so touching any part of it is out of the question. It too will cover a tree or creep along the ground quite easily. In the fall it can be dangerously seductive, with the foliage turning red or a bright yellow. A pretty sight when it is clothing the trunk of a tree in Mirror Lake or the Enchanted Forest. It is as if it is saying, “come closer to look at me.” Of course then it might jump out and touch you. So remember, “leaves of three, leave it be.”
More deceptive, but no less dangerous is smilax. This too grows abundantly in our natural areas including the Native Plant garden. There are several species of smilax and this semi-evergreen vine seems almost friendly. After all the first part of its name is “smile.” It can be quite attractive scrambling across the branches of shrubs, with a few leaves yellowing while producing bluish-black berries. Then you remember that the last part of the name is “ax” and it is not afraid to cut you to shreds with prickly little thorns. Clearly this is another plant you should admire at a distance.
So come take a walk around Garden. Seeing these vines in the fall with spectacular color or interesting fruit can be quite a treat. Just keep your distance, otherwise they are not afraid to play a trick on you.