The plant spooks a lot of people who think it’s poison ivy. Their fine, pointy leaves have a suspicious looking zig-zag edge and a wicked little bit of shininess. They even take on a satanic red blush during part of their season. What clinches it for some is that the leaves occur in clusters of three at the tip of each tendril, which is sort of what poison ivy does, so you can see why people are a little leery of it. However, contact with it is pretty much harmless to humans (though not neighboring trees). Research suggests it’s only mildly itchy to people who roll around in it, but that’s almost to be expected and probably what they deserve.
The plant is native to Texas but is now found all over the southeastern U.S. where it is also called Cow Vine and Wild Sarsaparilla, though there are no indications whether it affects cattle in any way and it does not appear to look anything like true sarsaparilla.
It is a form of grape vine and makes clusters of fairly substantial round black berries toward the end of the season. These are adored by birds and mammals that spread the plant promiscuously through their, ahem, digestion, but humans beware. Though some people find the berry has a sweet, grape-like taste and have been known to make wine and pies with them, others have determined there isn’t much flavor or nutritional value in them. Many might detect an itchy feeling in the back of their throat or an upset stomach after popping a few raw berries. This could possibly be from the calcium oxalates residing in the uncooked berry, you know, the substance that causes chemical burns to one’s digestive tract or result in severe kidney stones. Oh, yum.