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September 2006: Featured Plant
Cocculus carolinus: Carolina Coralbead, Carolina Snailseed

Cocculus carolinus: Carolina Coralbead, Carolina Snailseed

This vine provides a bright splash of color at the end of summer and is always a welcome sight. It is Cocculus carolinus, with common names of variations on Carolina Coralbead, Carolina Snailseed, and Red Moonseed.

The genus Menispermum, Moonseed, is named for its very odd, moon-shaped pyrenes (pits/stones) in its berry-like drupes and it is the type genus of the Moonseed Family, the Menispermaceae. Our only local representative of this small genus of vines is Menispermum canadense (Canadian Moonseed, Yellow Parilla) which I have not knowingly seen although it is supposed to be common in the mountains and piedmont of the SouthEast. The second genus in the SouthEast is monotypic; Calycocarpum lyonii (Cupseed, Lyonia-vine). It is rare here and found only in southeastern South Carolina and eastern Georgia. Have not seen it either!

Ah, but our only member of the third local genus of Menispermaceae, Cocculus, does a great job in advertizing, if only late in the season. It is a semi-woody, deciduous vine that slowly spreads by underground stems and regrows it shoots each year. Leaves are fairly small and widely spaced (obvious in the image above) and can be confused with those of Smilax species, which have similar growth habits. [Though the two should not otherwise be mentioned in the same sentence!] There are male and female plants, both producing short racemes of very small (but very interesting!) white flowers.

Fruit are orange-red (Coralbead) and are said to be inedible, though I find them interesting as do birds. The pyrenes look something like a Nautilus turned inside out ([sic] Snailseed) and is so odd that after tasting the fruit of this then-unknown vine, my tongue remembered a Figure of it in Wendy Zomlefer's (1994) Guide to Flowering Plant Families, University of North Carolina Press. The fruit do not fall off the plant, so if uneaten they brighten up winter and spring landscapes.

As is true of many other plants whose name I take to time to learn, I now see this one nearly eveywhere. Only in exceptional places and by exceptional ogres would it not be a welcome addition.

Image by Glenn Galau ©