Things are not always what they seem.

Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia creeper Watercolor 8.5x11. Brandi Malarkey, artist.


So we are all clear that I learn about plants as I attempt to paint them, and therefore know nothing about plants I haven’t painted yet. Mostly, I attempt to learn about the plant as I go–it’s a slow painting process, so there is plenty of time. This time, I was confident and lazy.

A year-ish or so ago I painted Concord grapes growing on the Living Fence at the Northern Plains Botanic Garden.

I was kinda proud of myself at the time, because it was the first time I had painted anything blue in watercolor. Last year I was fortunate enough to wander about the farmhouse of a friend, taking photos and bringing home a pile of samples. Among them, a completely different variety of grape that had fun red stems and–according to my friend–made excellent jelly. With a vision of potentially doing an entire series of various varieties of grapes, I took several cuttings home of these pretty plants:

Now, I started the painting process right away with sketches and colors and some initial layers of paint, but I put it away in favor of my large mystery project, and didn’t get back to finishing it until recently. As always, when you start something at one stage of understanding, and finish it at another, things are not as ideal as one would like–learning, m’dears, Learning! Since I have several paintings in a similar state, we will see if the next few weeks bring decent paintings or tears. However, I toddled along with this one, and when I finished it I attempted to nail down what variety of grape it is.

Only to discover, of course, that it isn’t actually a grape. For those who follow along at home, I am sure this comes as no surprise. For me, however, since I had been assured that they made excellent grape jelly, I was more than a bit taken off guard. Apparently this is actually Virginia Creeper–and not edible for humans.

So how could my friends have not poisoned themselves? Do they have iron stomachs? Did they specially prepare them in a way to deal with problem chemicals? According to Jim Walla, who is just the most amazing plant person, and is helping build an Edible Forest at the Northern Plains Botanic Garden, there is some use medicinally, but not of food, that he was aware, due to the high doses of oxalic acid. He also sent me this link so I could learn more. So after reading the list of symptoms I got hold of my friends and asked the obvious question–“Why are you not dead?” The answer?

They have never made jelly with those “grapes”. However, they look very similar to grapes they did make jelly out of that some friends gave them once.

I feel slightly betrayed and misled, but in all fairness as former dairy farmers they aren’t required to be botany experts. However, this is exactly why botanical gardens in general, and our soon to be built Edible Forest in particular, is so important. Also, why it is sad that the general public is just as ignorant about plants as I am.

However, guess what? My friends won’t be attempting to make jelly with those “grapes” now.

So here is my latest painting of “Not Grapes”.

Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia creeper Watercolor 8.5x11. Brandi Malarkey, artist.
Parthenocissus quinquefolia
Virginia creeper

2 Responses

  1. Wow, I am so glad you didn’t make jelly out of them :).

    Can definitely see the improvement , however, I thought the first painting was amazing too. You never cease to impress me!

    1. Actually, both photos are the same painting. One is just next to the specimen, the other is the scanned version.

      But I will take the compliment, anyway. 😉

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