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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Gainful Grape

Winter or Spanish Grape, Vitis cinerea var. helleri
Few plants have a higher ecological value to wildlife than the Winter Grape or Spanish Grape (Vitis cinerea var. helleri).  This hardy deciduous vine, which can grow to 72 feet long, is common in east, north, and central Texas, and is primarily distinguished from Mustang Grape (V. mustangensis) by the smooth surface on the underside of its leaves.  It makes for an excellent wildlife plant as its fruit is a food source to both mammals and birds, its dense climbing foliage provides cover and nesting habitat, and it is a host plant for more than a dozen species of moths. Common in woodland areas and thickets near streams and riverbanks, it thrives in part shade while clambering over other plants, even in the heat of summer.

When mature, the leaves of the Winter Grape are up to 4.5 inches long and 5 inches wide, and have white cobweb-like hairs only on the underside leaf veins.  Roughly heart-shaped, the leaves have two broad lobes, a pointed tip, and serrated edges.  While this vine does produce palatable, reddish-purple fruits in clusters up to 8 inches long that ripen from August to October, it is its leaves that provide the food for the larval stage of notable moths such as the Nessus Sphinx (Amphion floridensis), Vine Sphinx (Eumorpha vitis), Eight-spotted Forester (Alypia octomaculata), and Mournful Thyris (Thyris sepulchralis).  In addition to nectaring on flowers in the adult stage, these moths often pollinate those flowers at the same time.

Nessus Sphinx
Nessus Sphinx Caterpillar
Both the Nessus and Vine Sphinx are members of a family of moths called the Sphingidae, more commonly known as hawk moths, hummingbird moths, and sphinx moths. Generally speaking, these moths are named not just for their streamlined bullet-shaped bodies that have long narrow forewings and short hindwings, but also for their distinct behavior that comes in the form of swift, hovering flight. The leaf-feeding caterpillars or larva of these moths typically have a smooth body with a characteristic horn near their posterior end, hence the common name hornworm.  They pupate in an earthen cell or loose cocoon at or near the soil surface.  

Vine Sphinx
The Nessus Sphinx has a stout abdomen with two bright yellow bands and a tuft at the end.  The upperside of its wings are a dark red to chocolate brown, and its hindwings have a red-orange band with a yellowish fringe.  Its wingspan is 1.5 to just over 2 inches, flying during the day and at dusk, from March to May and July to September.  The Vine Sphinx has dark brown forewings with a striking pattern of thick, pale bands and three fine pinkish veins, and hindwings with a pink patch along the inner edge.  Its wingspan is 3.5 to just over 4 inches, flying mainly at dusk, from April to May and July to October.

Eight-spotted Forester
Eight-spotted Forester Caterpillar
Part of the Noctuidae family, the Eight-spotted Forester has black forewings with two pale yellow spots and inconspicuous metallic blue bands, and hindwings that are black with white spots at the base and in the middle.  Its black body has pale yellow at the base of the forewing, orange fringe on its front and middle legs, and like many species in this family, when perched it holds its wings above its body like a roof.  With a wingspan of 1.0 to 1.5 inches, it flies during the day, most commonly from February to May.  With black wings and body spotted with white, the Mournful Thyris is a member of the Thyrididae family, generally small moths with stout bodies and relatively short wings, that perch in a distinctive position with a raised body and outspread wings.  Its wingspan is just over 0.5 to just under 1.0 inch, flying mainly during the day, from April to August.  

Mournful Thyris

Whether you are looking for a hardy vine for your summer garden, or just a profitable plant for serving the needs of several species of native wildlife, look no further than the gainful grape!