Grape Vines in the Treetops: Impressive and Baffling

A favorite walking route in late Fall and in the Winter is in the woods, heading southeast from the footbridge along the river. (The path is roughly indicated by the orange dots on this map.)

From a number of the trees along the path, especially beyond the convergence of the two branches of the Rouge River, hang long woody vines. The vines are unattached to tree trunks, hanging from branches in the canopies. Here are two examples, one photographed on a sunny day and one on a cloudy one.

The vines are often rooted several feet from the trunks of the trees whose canopies they now occupy, 30, 40, or 50 feet from the ground. The long vines are bare of leaves and fruit and have few side branches. To find the leaves and fruit (in season), one would need to go to the canopies. The woody vines that carry nutrients up are often 2 – 3 inches in diameter, with shedding bark.

There are different wild grape species native to Michigan. I think that these might be Riverbank Grapes, though I am not able to make a definite identification.

This picture of fruit was taken in another location in the park earlier this year. I do not see grapes in this section of the park, though the vines tell me that there are probably grapes in the treetops.

I am fascinated by the size and the age of these splendid vines. I wonder how many decades they have been growing here before I started walking in these woods.

I am also intrigued by the question of how they got to the canopies. Vines do not have trunks that support themselves upright. They are more like ropes than trees; they need to be attached to something in order to climb.

As I have noted in other postings, different vines hsve different methods of climbing. Poison Ivy, for example, attaches itself to tree trunks by hairy rootlets. So its ability to climb tall trees is understandable.

Grape vines climb by using tendrils, small leafless stems that can grab and hang onto limbs or other stems for support, as can be seen in this picture.

I haven’t been there to check, of course, but I have no doubt that these vines are attached by many tendrils in the tree canopies and that the entangled smaller vines up there keep the heavy main vine from falling.

The baffling question is how did the vine get to the tree top, what supported it as it grew. Most of these trees have no lower branches for the grape vines to climb.

I don’t have a clear snswer. Is it possible that these trees were much, much smaller, with low branches or thin trunks, when tbe vines first reached out their tendrils? Is it possible that these vines are roughly in the same age category as the trees they now dangle from?

There are many days when I learn something new about the flora and the fauna in Eliza Howell Park. There are many other days when I recognize that there is so much more yet to learn.

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