Carolina Moonseed (Cocculus carolinus) of the Menispermaceae (Moonseed Family) occurs in the U.S. in the mid-western and southern states. This semi-woody, scrambling or climbing vine occurs throughout Arkansas in shady to partly sunny woods and thickets and along streams and fence rows. It is a slender twining vine without tendrils or thorns. Carolina moonseed, a.k.a. Carolina snailseed, red-berried moonseed and Carolina coralbead, is usually deciduous, but can retain some smaller basal leaves into winter.
Medium-green, slightly leathery leaves vary considerably in outline and size, but are generally ovate to heart-shaped to hastate (triangular) without lobes or with one to two broad lobes on either side. Lobes of some leaves are so indistinct that the outline merely appears wavy. Smaller leaves nearer ground-level tend to have more lobes or show a hastate shape while leaves higher in trees are significantly larger and almost oval. Larger leaves may have blades 5.5” long and 6” wide with petioles of 4.5”. Smaller leaves may have blades 2.75” long and 3.5” wide with petioles of 2.25”. Leaf margins are entire with a pointed to rounded tip with tips typically having a needle-like point. Leaf blades are sparsely covered with fine hairs. Petioles are long and uniformly slender, with those of larger leaves tending to have a kink or bend (may be caused by leaves repositioning themselves during growth to access better sunlight). Venation, as with leaf size, varies considerably, but remains palmate at the base.
Carolina moonseed is dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants). Male panicles are up to 6” long while female clusters are much shorter. Flowers may occur from near ground-level in fencerows to 40 or more feet up within trees. Flowers, ¼” across, with white petals and green sepals occur in early summer.
In late summer and early fall, tight to loose clusters of green fruit on the female vines mature to translucent brilliant red fruits (drupes) and become evident in fence rows and high-up in tall trees. Fruit, persisting into late fall, are less than a fourth-inch in diameter and enclose a flattened, round, 1-seeded stone or pit about ⅛” in diameter and with a textured margin. The stone is said to look like a crescent moon (thus, Carolina “moonseed”) or a snail (thus, Carolina “snailseed”).
Carolina moonseed produces an abundance of fruit which are eaten by many bird species. It comes up from seeds readily. Despite its showy leaves and fruit, the plant’s reputation for being difficult to control in garden settings suggests that it should not be planted in small or formal gardens, but rather should be appreciated in natural settings.
Note: The related Canada moonseed (Menispermum canadense) occurs in moist forests in the highlands of northwest and central Arkansas. Plant growth habit and leaves of Canada moonseed are similar to Carolina moonseed. Canada moonseed can be distinguished by having petioles that join at the bottom surface of the leaf blade rather than at the margin. Also, fruit of Canada moonseed (poisonous) resembles small-fruited, bluish-black grapes in color and cluster shape. A third member of this family in Arkansas, cupseed (Calycocarpum lyonii), also a vine, is found throughout the state, generally in rich, riparian forests. Leaves of cupseed are often deeply three- to five-lobed, with generally long, slender, pointed tips. The stones or pits of the bluish-black fruit of this species are oval, smooth and bowl-shaped or cupped (hence the name, “cupseed”).
Article and photos by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl