Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Vine for Beer Drinkers

        New England is such a jungle of wild vines at this time of year I find it almost scary.  Just look at that bindweed (I refuse to call it a morning glory!) It is positively strangling my bank of flowering shrubs. The lacy cucumber vine that makes beautiful ladders was too delicate to withstand Hurricane Irene, but the woodbine is still walking the tightrope of telephone lines overhead, and the grape vines are covering roadside trees and shrubs in  heavy shrouds of greenery.

Many years ago one of my readers, Mrs. Thomen, called to ask if I was familiar with the hop vine.  She described it as “a prickly, rambunctious rambler,” and invited me to come and dig up a section of her plant so I could learn firsthand about its growth habits.  She also warned me that it could grow 30 feet in one summer.

Locust Hill has many vines – clematis, euonymus, ivy, akebia, and a silver lace vine hiding the propane tank.  They are all well-behaved. The one that behaved badly, a bittersweet vine, I got rid of. Did I really want such a poorly behaved vine hopping all around like a rabbit? Well, yes, if it could provide me with a new garden column.

Mrs. T’s plant was a member of the hemp family, Humulus lupulus, a perennial.  Two other varieties, the Japanese hop and the one with variegated leaves, are both annuals.  After much thought I planted the vine at the foot of the deck at the back of the guest house where it wouldn’t matter if it misbehaved.

Despite poor soil and only morning sun, the hop vine climbed up the netting I’d hung down from the second story deck and clambered right over the railing.  In its second year it produced flowers.  They weren’t very pretty, resembling small burdock burrs, and were soon followed by the hops, papery pale yellow cones with a pinkish tinge that soon turn brown.  They have a very distinctive smell.

Because I’m not a beer drinker, I didn’t realize until I began reading about hops, that beer contains a very important ingredient from this vine.   “Magic and Medicine of Plants,” published by Reader’s Digest, informed me that the glands in the female fruits are what give beer its “pleasantly bitter taste.”

“The Complete Book of Fruits and Vegetables” by F. Bianchini and F. Corbetta, published in 1975, offered me some even better quotes. “Hops have an estrogenic action, feminizing and anaphrodisiac, so that besides serving as a sedative, it is believed by some to be the cause of disorders afflicting hard beer drinkers.”

They went on to say,“Beer drinkers suffer from obesity, sterility and hepatic degeneration, or more simply put, a corroding liver.” Wow, you never know what tidbits you can dig up when you start researching a plant.

The young shoots of the hop vine can be boiled in a little salted water and lemon juice and eaten as a vegetable.  I’ve never tried them, but supposedly they have a taste similar to asparagus.  The spent hops (I’m assuming that means the ones from which the feminizing qualities have been extracted) can be used as a mulch, and when mixed with dried blood encourage phenomenal tree growth.

The leaves of the hop vine are three-lobed, bright green and do not turn color in the fall.  The stems contain almost microscopic prickles that help to hold the plant in place as it climbs.  It makes an excellent summer screen, and the distinctive odor of the cones might just mask that pail of unemptied garbage on the back porch.

The new shoots climb by twining, continually revolving clockwise.   Darwin actually measured the speed at which the hop shoot twines. It makes a complete revolution every 2 hours and 8 minutes.  Think of that!  Do you suppose Darwin sat and watched a hop shoot twining for 2 hours and 8 minutes?

One April daughter Trum took home to Oregon a piece of my hop vine and planted it to shade her south porch.  I flew out to visit in late June and saw that just one shoot had begun climbing the string Trum had provided.  Each day we measured its growth.  Phenomenal! In that one week it grew so high we could no longer reach high enough to measure it. 

Well, I guess by now you know more than you wanted to about the hop vine.  Except where to buy one.

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