Native Grapes / Water Vines (Part 15)

Cissus hypoglauca [5-leaf grape, jungle grape, water vine - foliage] sml.jpg

Five-leaf water vine. © JPM, 2022.

Vines, vines, glorious vines! Amidst the tangled mess there are grapes to find!

Names

Native grapes come from several separate genera of woody liana plants more commonly referred to as water vines or pepper vines. While not all water vines are completely edible, there are at least seven known and utilised palatable species: the northern Ampelocissus acetosa, otherwise known as wild grapes or djabaru; Cayratia clematidea (native grape or bushy water vine); Cayratia trifolia, formerly Cissus trifolia (bush grape or three-leaf water vine); Cissus antarctica (kangaroo vine or water vine); Cissus hypoglauca (jungle grape or five-leaf water vine); Clematicissus opaca (pepper vine); and Tetrastigma nitens (native grape, shiny-leaf grape or three-leaf water vine).

Some of the names overlap; almost all of the plants may be commonly referred to as "water vine", and the careful student will note that there are two "three-leaf" water vines, both with distinctive identifying features, detailed below.

Habitat and Range

Another rain forest vine by nature, native grapes thrive along the length of Australia's east coast and top end. They are prominent understory creepers, being found clambering over rain forest giants and wet eucalyptus forests, especially along the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range. They grow in well-watered areas, such as near creeks, waterholes, dams, valleys and gullies, or anywhere rainfall or underground water is reasonably ample and the soil is rich and deep. Where they occur they usually clog easy foot traffic through the bush and can overtake areas and smother smaller trees and shrubs to death if left unchecked. Native grapes are typically unsuited to dry or arid areas of the continent, although the northern djabaru accommodates the seasonal dry rather well. Native grapes are mostly absent from western and southern Australia, although Cissus antarctica (kangaroo vine) and Cissus hypoglauca (five-leaf water vine) can be found as far south as the eastern corner of Victoria. Where native grapes occur they can usually be found prolifically.

Figure 1. Distribution of Ampelcissus acetosa (djabaru) across the Top End. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ampelocissus acetosa [Wild Grape] distribution.png


Figure 2. Distribution of Cayratia (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cayratia [Native Grape, Slender Grape, Bushy Water Vine] distribution.png


Figure 3. Distribution of Cissus (all species) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cissus distribution.png


Figure 4. Distribution of Clematicissus opaca (pepper vine) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Clematicissus opaca [pepper vine] distribution.png


Figure 5. Distribution of Tetrastigma nitens (three-leaf water vine) across the continent. Atlas of Living Australia.
Tetrastigma nitens [native grape, shiny-leaved grape, three-leaf water vine] distribution.png


Identification

Key Identifying Features
  • Woody, sprawling liana (vines), 3-10 metres in length, often choking the plants they grow among
  • May exhibit brambles on the stems (Cissus antarctica)
  • Vineage will readily drip water if cut and angled vertically.
  • Leaves occur singly (Cissus antarctica only), or in splays of three, five, or seven to ten.
  • Some species have white or light undersides to the leaves (Cissus hypoglauca)
  • Flowers appear in spring (September-November) in inflorescences (clusters) and resemble grape flowers
  • Flowers set into round, green, unripe grapes
  • Grapes ripen dark black or red, with 3-5 grape-like seeds inside
  • Grapes have grey-green flesh just like black or red grapes
  • May have a significant tuber of 3 to 5 kg at the vineage base (Pepper vine only, Clematicissus opaca)
Each of the most edible species of native grape have unique identifying features, usually the number and shape of the leaves. Note that it is possible to stumble across a less palatable varieties with similar features in the foliage. The less edible varieties are not particularly poisonous; rather, the fruits will be incredibly insipid, bitter or astringent, making them not worth the effort to harvest. Water vines, whatever the genus, will usually have coiling tendrils that emerge from the stem opposite where the leaves emerge.

Figure 6. Ampelocissus acetosa foliage, the northern djabaru, has splays of seven to ten smooth-edged leaves. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ampelocissus acetosa [foliage - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 7. A young native grape (Cayratia clematidea) with serrated leaf edges, typically in splays of five to seven leaves. Note the coiling tendrils (right and top-right, grasping bracken fern tips). Hornsby Blue Gum Track, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Cayratia clematidea [leaf] 20221120_154022 sml.jpg


Figure 8. Cayratia trifolia has luscious, leathery leaves with slightly serrated edges, always in splays of three. Serrations can be more prominent than in this image. Flickr.
Cayratia trifolia [Foliage - flickr].jpg


Figure 9. Cissus antarctica, kangaroo vine, always has large, long, single leaves. They can be smooth-edged or serrated. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus antarctica [foliage] sml.jpg


Figure 10. The underside of Cissus antarctica leaves exhibits small, round nodules near the central vein, a key identifying feature. Note also the coiling tendril, left of image. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.

Cissus antarctica [foliage underside] sml.jpg


Figure 11. Cissus antarctica new growth exhibiting the distinctive brown hairs. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus antarctica [new foliage, brown fuzz] sml.jpg


Figure 12. Cissus antarctica also has brambles on the thick, main stems, a key identifying feature for this species. Hornsby Blue Gum Track, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.

Cissus antarctica [brambles] 20221119_144051 sml.jpg


Figure 13. Cissus hypoglauca, five-leaf water vine, has distinctive splays of five, rarely four or six, dark green leaves. Leaf edges may be smooth or serrated, often on the same plant! See also header image at the top of this article. BONUS - Can you spot the four sarsparilla (Smilax australis) leaves in this picture (refer to part 13 of this series)? Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus hypoglauca [vineage] sml.jpg


Figure 14. The undersides of Cissus hypoglauca leaves (five-leaf water vine) are a fluffy white colour, making this prominent species very distinct and easy to identify. Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus hypoglauca [foliage underside] sml.jpg


Figure 15. New spring growth on a five-leaf water vine (Cissus hypoglauca). Hornsby Blue Gum Track. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus hypoglauca [new shoots] 20221211_142110 sml.jpg


Figure 16. Clematicissus opaca, pepper vine, has splays of three (rarely, four or five) leaves in an almost fleur-de-lis pattern. Leaves may have smooth or serrated edges. Atlas of Living Australia.

Clematicissus opaca [foliage - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 17. Tetrastigma nitens has glossy leaves in splays of three. Cayratia trifolia leaves are more matte; compare figure 8 above. Note the coiling tendrils, centre-top. Atlas of Living Australia.
Tetrastigma nitens [foliage - ATLAS].jpeg


Native grapes put out clumps (inflorescence) of flowers in summer, with fruit forming between February to June, almost the same as cultivated grape season. Young fruit, like cultivated grapes, will start green and generally ripen to a dark red, black or purple.

Figure 18. Ampelocissus acetosa, or djabaru, flowers. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ampelocissus acetosa [flowers - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 19. Fruits of the Top End djabaru, Ampelocissus acetosa. Atlas of Living Australia.
Ampelocissus acetosa [Djabaru - fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 20. Cayratia clematidea flowers and unripe fruit forming. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cayratia clematidea [Flowers - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 21. Cayratia trifolia flower inflorescence. Wikimedia Commons.
Cayratia trifolia [Flowers - wikicommons].jpg


Figure 22. Cayratia trifolia with ripe fruit. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cayratia trifolia [Bush grape, Threeleaf Water Vine, ex Cissus - Leaves & fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 23. Kangaroo vine, Cissus antarctica, flower buds. Bicentennial Park, Sydney. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus antarctica [flower buds] sml.jpg


Figure 24. Cissus antarctica fruit. Atlas of Living Australia.
Cissus antarctica [kangaroo Vine, water vine - foliage & fruit - ATLAS].jpeg


Figure 25. Cissus hypoglauca ripe fruit. Sadly it was a bit late in the season and this sorry specimen was all I found. Blue Gum Track, Hornsby, NSW. © JPM, 2022.
Cissus hypoglauca [grape] sml.jpg


Figure 26. Clematicissus opaca, pepper vine, with flowers. Wikimedia Commons.
Clematicissus opaca [foliage and flowers - Wikicommons].jpg


Figure 27. Tetrastigma nitens displaying the four stigmas on the flowers, hence the name. Phytoimages.edu.au.
Tetrastigma nitens [Flower - phytoimages.siu.edu].jpg


Uses

Native grapes may be consumed in the field, although one must get the correct season for the best flavour. Sadly, many native grapes have an insipid burning taste that remains on the palate regardless of preparation method (raw, cooked or fermented). Areas where fruit is abundant may be collected en masse and processed as per wine. Fruit may also be cooked into jams, jellies and conserves. Cooking can marginally improve the flavour of insipid fruit; any native grapes that still taste bitter or unpalatable after cooking should be avoided. It is probably possible to sun-dry grapes into sultanas, although all native grapes have seeds. Seeds can be probably be crushed to release grapeseed oils, although I am unsure of their precise chemical properties due to lack of available information. Take any native grapeseed oil with extreme care until it is ascertained it is safe for human consumption.

Apparently the pepper vine (Clematicissus opaca only) has a substantial tuber which can be dug from the base of the plant, often exceeding 5 kilograms. While not an important or common food of the first nation tribes of northern and coastal Queensland, due to their size the tubers can supply a significant quantity of carbohydrates to sustain life in an emergency situation. I had difficulty acquiring more information on the use and preparation of pepper vine tubers, and have yet to encounter this species in my foraging journeys. Consume with care and do your due diligence prior to utilising this part of the plant.

As per their other common name, water vine, native grapes can grow thick stems that dangle down from the rain forest canopy. These thick, woody vines can be cut open with a knife, axe or stone and pure, fresh drinking water extracted directly from them. Note that this will kill the vine above the point where it was cut, but vines grow from a hardy root base just like cultivated grapes and will recover themselves without any human effort. Water vines have been utilised for this purpose for millenia. Water harvested in this manner cannot be kept for more than a day or two as natural enzymes and bacterium in the plant will cause it to go off.
Next page: Native Figs (Part 16)
Previous page: Native Limes (Part 14)
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