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Plant of the Month: June 2007

Madeira Vine
Anredera cordifolia (Ten. 1853) Steenis 1957
ssp. gracilis (Miers 1864) Xifreda & Argimén 1999
= Boussingaultia baselloides auct., non HBK.
= Boussingaultia gracilis Miers f. pseudo-baselloides Hauman 1925
BASELLACEÆ; Basella Family

Recently I bought a specimen of this plant, and knew nothing about it except that it was edible. So I researched it, and here share my findings with you. By and by I hope to add an illustration.
    The commonly grown Anredera cordifolia was long more often incorrectly called Boussingaultia baselloides --after Jean Baptiste Boussingault (1802 - 1887), a famous French agricultural chemist. The genus Anredera dates from 1789 --the year of the French Revolution-- when the botanist Anotine Laurent de Jussieu (1748 - 1836) published it. The genus Boussingaultia dates from 1825. Anredera is likely derived from a Spanish word, enredadera --referring to twining or climbing plants such as bindweed.
    In English --in the northern hemisphere at least-- this plant is generally called Madeira Vine or Mignonette Vine. In Spanish it is parra de Madeira; in French, vin de Madère. It was introduced from its native central part of South America (drier areas of Bolivia, S Brazil, Paraguay, N Argentina, and Uruguay) to England in 1835, when John Tweedie sent it from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sometime earlier than that the species made it to southern Europe, where it became naturalized in places from Portugal to Yugoslavia. Cultivated in the U.S. since the early 1800s --if not late 1700s-- it now grows wild as well from Florida to Texas, and in coastal central and southern California. In Hawaii, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere it has become a hugely problematic weed. Names for it there include White Shroud, Jalap, and Lamb's Tails. In Hawaiian it is Uala Hupe.
    When exactly it was introduced to the United States I have not learned. Writing about Florida's St. John's River and its borders, on July 15th 1821, the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, D.D, noted: "These light lands are not suitable for Indian corn. The best produces scarcely twenty bushels per acre. Indigo, cotton, madder, sugar cane, the mulberry tree, the date, the olive, the pomegranate, the almond, the Madeira vine, the coffee tree, beyond the twenty seventh degree; the lemon, and above all, the orange trees, thrive well, on choosing suitable soil and exposure." (p. 148 of A Report to the secretary of War of the United States on Indian Affairs)
    Whether the reverend Morse's Madeira vine was what we now call Madeira vine, or was a grape-producing Vitis vinifera varietal that previously was so-called, is impossible to know. Fortified wines made on the island of Madeira have long been called "Madeira;" sweet or dry, they are related to Port and Sherry, but are amazingly long lasting. And why the South American vine ended up being called Madeira vine is something I desire to learn. If any reader knows, kindly alert me, and I shall amend this article. Norman Taylor's 1936 gardening encyclopedia says it is also called Manetti vine. Again, I do not know why. Edwin Menninger's 1970 Flowering Vines of the World suggests that the plant was "established in Madeira, then was returned to the Americas." Menninger adds that it is also called "Silk Cururu" and "Bertalha." I cannot find verification for the former, and Bertalha is applied generally to the related genus Basella.
    The plant is subtropical. Its fleshy tuberous roots survive little or no heavy frost. But each year the delicate vines can grow 10 to 20 feet long even in the cool North. In frost-free, humid areas they can grow 3 feet a week. The stems lack tendrils, but twine counterclockwise around whatever they can. From June into November (in the northern hemisphere), but mostly in late summer or autumn they bear slender drooping clusters, up to a foot long or more, of numerous tiny white sweetly fragrant flowers --hence the name Mignonette Vine. People have likened the floral scent to that of hawthorn trees, to almonds, and merely called it spicy. The flowers are about a 5th of an inch wide, and blacken in age. Being functionally male, the flowers set very few seeds. Amply making up for the few seeds produced, Madeira vine stems usually bear prolific tiny tubers, from which the plant is propagated.
    The leaves are bright shiny green, hairless, short-stalked, to about 5 inches long, waxy-textured, and vary from roundish to egg shaped or narrower, usually slightly heart-shaped (cordate) at their bases. They can be eaten in salads or as a spinach substitute. The mucilaginous, tuberous roots are also edible, cooked like potatoes, and have been called basell potatoes; no one seems to rave about the merits of eating them. The plant has been cultivated almost exclusively for its ornamental role. In the old fashioned southern U.S., it was employed extensively to cover porches, pergolas, arbors and the like.
    In China the bulbils (tiny stem tubers), leaves, and roots are used medicinally (demonstrated in rat tests as anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer, and liver-protective).
    The vining, vigorous growth and tiny yet abundant white flowers late in summer recall the cold-hardy Silver Fleece Vine Polygonum Aubertii (= Fallopia Aubertii), or an amazingly rampant version of Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora, a.k.a. C. dioscoreifolia, long called C. paniculata).
    Controlling the Madeira vine's weediness is extremely difficult. In warm, humid subtropical areas where it has been introduced it can smother trees in cities, forests and along rivers. A flea beetle has been suggested as a possible biological control agent --details are in a thesis dated January 2006 by Liamé van der Westhuizen of the Department of Zoology and Entomology, Rhodes University, South Africa.

    The BASELLACEÆ is a small plant family, related to the PORTULACACEÆ (Purslane Family) and CHENOPODIACEÆ (Goosefoot Family). It consists of four genera:

1) Basella
    Basella alba L. (=B. rubra L.) is pantropical species, plus an East African one and 3 species from Madagascar. Cultivated as Malabar Spinach, Ceylon Spinach, Indian Spinach, and Malabar Nightshade.

2) Ullucus tuberosus Caldus
    The Ulloco or Ullucu or Mellaco, an Andean plant grown for its edible tubers.

3) Tournonia Hookeriana Moq.
    From Colombia.

4) Anredera
    Of 10-12 species, all South American.

If you live in the frosty North --as I do in Seattle-- and yet are desirous of testing the Madeira vine in your garden, know that the advice is to give them warm, sunny, well-drained rich soil all summer, then dig up the roots in fall, as you would Dahlia tubers --lest winter freeze them. I bought a little plant via mail-order for $4.50 from Companion Plants of Athens, Ohio, and will watch it grow, taste it, and update this article when there is anything noteworthy. Seattle has so few heat-units, and our summers are so dry, that I expect minimal growth and no flowers.
    Other mail-order nurseries sell Madeira vine. For example, Glasshouse Works, Arid Lands Greenhouses, Woodlanders, and Bulbmeister.com. Prices current as of June 2007 varied from $2 to $14.95

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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