Vines play an important role in rainforests, providing food for animals and filling out plant canopies. Most vines begin on the forest floor as small shrubs and wend their way upward, using trees for support, to reach sunshine above the rainforest canopy. Rainforest vines are notoriously resilient and capable of growing in a variety of environments. Some rainforest vines, such as the philodendron, have even become common houseplants.
These vines belong to the liana class, a group that makes up the majority of rainforest vines. Water vines, also known as jungle vines and five-leaved grape vines, grow quickly and put forth dark fruits that resemble purple grapes. Natives cut a vine in two places to access the water inside. Water vines can grow to more than 1 foot in diameter. Brazilians use water-vine decoctions to treat epilepsy, strokes and diabetes. Water vines also grow well in indoor pots and on outdoor garden trellises.
This climbing palm vine, also in the liana class, is prevalent in Asian rainforests. Rattan vines can grow to 600 feet in length and 1.5 inches in diameter, and their leaves contain spines that help them grow up rainforest trees. Manufacturers use rattan to make ropes, baskets and water-resistant wooden furniture. Most rattan sold today comes from commercial farms rather than rainforests.
Curare vines, which contain a potent form of strychnine, are important to human rainforest dwellers. South American Indians make syrup from curare’s roots and stems. They dip their arrows and darts into the poison and use the weapons to hunt animals. Curare kills by paralyzing an animal’s respiratory system. In smaller amounts, curare can also treat medical conditions. Natives use the vine’s root as a diuretic and to battle fever, swelling and kidney stones.
This class of vines can grow from the ground to the canopy, or from the canopy to the ground, depending on where birds deposit the plants’ seeds. Monstera vines have holes in their leaves and yield fruit that’s nearly a foot long. Once monstera vines reach the canopy, they lose their soil-based roots and live exclusively in trees. Perhaps one of the best-known hemiepiphytes, the philodendron makes a hardy houseplant. In their native tropical environment, philodendron leaves can grow to four feet long. And the strangler fig, though technically a tree, sends vines of up to 150 feet into host trees. The vines suffocate the trees, which eventually die and hollow out, leaving the strangler fig behind. Strangler figs are a key source of food for rainforest animals.