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What is Moonseed?

By Bethney Foster
Updated May 16, 2024
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Moonseed is a woody vine endemic to eastern North America, where it grows in woods and hedges. The plant produces clusters of small fruits, known as drupes, which resemble grapes. Each drupe has a large crescent-shaped seed, from which the name is derived.

Of the scientific family Menispermaceae and the genus Cocculus or Menispermum, depending on the species, the plants are poisonous. The toxin is alkaloid dauricine. The drupes have led to paralysis and death when eaten. In traditional medicine, moonseed has been used for treating several conditions, including constipation and skin diseases.

Carolina moonseed, Cocculus carolinus, forms clusters of scarlet berries in the autumn. Also known as coralberries, this plant has twining stems that can grow to 10 feet (3 m) long and 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. The plant produces dark green, heart-shaped flowers that can be up to 5 inches (12.7 cm) long.

The plant produces small, numerous green flowers in the spring. Often cultivated because of its berries, the Carolina moonseed can be grown in a large pot. It needs to be pruned in late winter or early spring before it begins to produce new growth. The plants usually do not produce berries in the first few years after they are planted.

In the wild, the plant grows from Florida to Texas and from Virginia to Oklahoma. Some plants are also found in Arizona. It is most often found at the openings to forests or near streams.

Canadian moonseed, Menispermum canadense, is also known as vine maple and yellow parilla. It is found in the wild from southern Canada to northern Florida and along the Atlantic coast from Manitoba to Texas. It is most often seen growing in thickets, woods, and along stream banks.

The Canadian moonseed plant is often confused with wild grapes. The leaves of the plant have three to seven lobes and are heart-shaped. The leaves can be as much as 8 inches (20 cm) wide. The vine grows to as much as 12 to 15 feet (3.6 to 4.5 meters) and is often seen climbing through maple trees. It produces small clusters of yellow to green flowers in mid-summer.

In the autumn, blackberries appear. As they mature, the berries often produce a white, waxy bloom. The root of the plant, although also poison, is often collected in the autumn for traditional medicinal purposes. The roots are thick and yellow-brown in color.

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