The slithy toves

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe’

These are the opening lines to The Jabberwocky, a poem about a mythical dreadful beast that appears in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book ‘Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice found there’. The poem contains many bizarre words invented by the author and what each of them means depends upon the reader’s own imagination. Most people probably think of the ‘slithy toves’ as giant worms or snakes, but I prefer to think of them as vines, especially those of the native American grape (Vitus sp), which forms twisted slippery ropes in the dark and dank undergrowth (see the gallery of slithy toves below).

Grape and other vines are sun-loving plants that will rapidly climb upwards and outwards over the canopy of the trees and bushes above them and are usually found on the edges of forests and woodlots. Wild grape has broad, three-pointed leaves and clusters of dangling berries that are green at the time of writing (August) but will turn purplish-black in the fall. In my opinion, American grape is one of our most underappreciated native plants in terms of wildlife value. Because the berries mature in the fall they provide much-needed food for migrating warblers and thrushes, such as the Gray Catbird seen below. The berries and their leaves are also chomped upon by several insects and some birds conceal their nests by building them in bushes or trees cloak with grape leaves.

Unfortunately, American grape is facing strong competition from two invasive berry-producing vines which were introduced to the United States from Asia in the 19th century as ornamental plants. Both literally grow alongside grape and are increasingly common in our area. Porcelain berry Ampelopsis glandulosa can be hard to distinguish from American grape when it is young as the leaves are also green and three-pointed, although they tend to be smaller, shinier, and more narrow and pointed. Porcelain berry is easy to identify once it matures in the fall as its dimpled berries are borne in clusters above the leaves, not below, and can be blue, green or purple with a porcelain-like veneer.

Another invasive vine which is sadly common in our area is Oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus. Although bittersweet berries are easily distinguished from grapes as they are bright red and emerge from yellow pods, the vines are more similar. Bittersweet vines are gray and spotted and tend to spiral more than those of grape which are brown, convoluted and have a distinctive shredded texture. Bittersweet vines often twine around each other which helps them climb, and they can become so thick and clustered that their weight is enough to pull down large trees.

Can you tell apart the vines of American grape and Oriental bittersweet climbing this tree?

A great way to help wildlife and especially birds on your property is to encourage the growth of native vines such as the American grape while identifying and removing alien invasive vines. As birds feed on the grapes they will pass out the seeds which will in turn produce a new generation of ‘slithy toves’ to attract even more wildlife. Unfortunately, grape seems to be one of the most popular host plants for the invasive Spotted Lanternfly and it is possible that they may inhibit its growth or ability to produce edible berries, so we recommend that you remove these insects if you see them (click here to read more about lanternflies from Penn State Extension).

And if you want to really increase the biodiversity in your yard using other native vines, check out the diverse selection available from our Native Plant Sale each spring!

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