Our Central Carolina Milkvines: Gonolobus suberosus, Matelea carolinensis, and Matelea decipiens

Milkvines, as their name implies, are members of the milkweed family, the Apocynaceae, known for their white, milky sap.  They are herbaceous, twining vines with broad, opposite, ovate (often heart-shaped) leaves.  In Central North Carolina these native perennials are often found in power lines, at the edge of woodlands, and climbing fences along roadways.

The least known and recognized of the group is Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus, whose common names are Eastern Anglepod or Angularfruit Milkvine .    Although the vines can be several meters long, the flowers are not showy and do not occur in large clusters, but are scattered  in small groups, often covered by the leaves.  To a passing observer, they just look like nondescript vines.  The photo below shows the typical appearance of a Gonolobus flower, which has a dark blue center with green on the perimeter of the petals.

Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus Eastern Anglepod Flower

Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus
Eastern Anglepod
Flower

An unusual color variant is sometimes seen, with the green of the flower replaced by yellow.  Just the small addition of a brighter color makes the vine much easier to spot and identify.  See below.

Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus Eastern Anglepod Vine

Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus
Eastern Anglepod
Vine

Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus Eastern Anglepod Flower Color Variant

Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus
Eastern Anglepod
Flower Color Variant

Matelea carolinensis, Carolina Spinypod or Maroon Carolina Milkvine, is common and widespread in North Carolina.  The foliage is much more open in this species, and the dark maroon, clustered flowers call attention to the vine.  The flowers of Matelea carolinensis have wide, reflexed petals.

Matelea carolinensis Carolina Spinypod Flower

Matelea carolinensis
Carolina Spinypod
Flower

There are several, unusual color variants in Matelea carolinensis also, and these are seen much less often than the yellow Gonolobus.  Pictured below are flowers that are a yellow- tinted light maroon color.

Matelea carolinensis Carolina Spinypod Light Maroon/yellow Flower

Matelea carolinensis
Carolina Spinypod
Light Maroon/yellow Flower

Another color variation is a creamy yellow.  This plant was near the one featured above.

Matelea carolinensis Carolina Spinypod Creamy Yellow Flower

Matelea carolinensis
Carolina Spinypod
Creamy Yellow Flower

Matelea decipiens, Deceptive Spinypod or Oldfield Milkvine, is the third member of this group, far more uncommon in North Carolina than the other two, although it is frequently seen in Durham and Wake Counties over mafic rock.  Mafic rock is rich in magnesium and iron.  The primary way that it can be distinguished from M. carolinensis is by the form of the flowers.  In Matelea decipiens, the flowers have ascending, somewhat ribbon-like petals that are narrower at the base than those of M. carolinensis.

Matelea decipiens Deceptive Spinypod Flowers

Matelea decipiens
Deceptive Spinypod
Flowers

Matelea decipiens Deceptive Spinypod Flowers

Matelea decipiens
Deceptive Spinypod
Flowers

Although distinguishing the three milkvines is primarily dependent on their flowers, it is possible to differentiate Gonolobus from the  two Mateleas by differences in their leaves.  Below are the typical heart-shaped leaves of  Matelea carolinensis.  The leaves have a light green color and the surface is soft and fuzzy.

Matelea carolinensis Carolina Spinypod Leaves

Matelea carolinensis
Carolina Spinypod
Leaves

Gonolobus leaves are a darker green and the  surface is  irregular and crinkled.  The leaf is elongated into a spade shape rather than a heart shape.  The largest leaves have pronounced basal lobes that sometimes overlap.

Gonolobus suberosus Eastern Anglepod Leaves

Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus
Eastern Anglepod
Leaves

The leaves below are placed side by side for better comparison, Matelea carolinensis on the left and Gonolobus on the right.

Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus Eastern Anglepod Leaves

Matelea carolinensis and Gonolobus suberosus var. suberosus
Carolina Spinypod and Eastern Anglepod
Leaves

Matelea carolinensis and Matelea decipiens can not be distinguished from each other by leaf shape.  In fact, at times the flower structures themselves can be difficult and ambiguous.  In mixed populations, intermediate forms can be seen, and changes in flower morphology can be seen among flowers on the same vine depending on whether they are on the lower or upper parts of the vine.  There is a possibility that taxonomists will soon be taking another look at their classification.

Herb Amyx

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3 Responses to Our Central Carolina Milkvines: Gonolobus suberosus, Matelea carolinensis, and Matelea decipiens

  1. John Pelosi says:

    Herb, absolutely fascinating. thanks!

  2. Herb, thank you the article – it was fascinating! I had been trying to find more information about the various milkvines of the southeastern U.S., and your article helped a lot. A few months ago I found and photographed some examples of Metelea carolinensis here in Cobb County, Georgia. Here is one climbing over a milkweed:
    Milkvine on Milkweed
    Today I noticed and photographed the spiny pod that is typical of this species. But today I also ran across a similar-looking vine just a few miles away, and then I noticed a smooth, sharply angular pod growing on it. So in fact I had stumbled across a specimen of Gonolobus suberosa. A pair of photos contrasting these two pods would be an interesting addition to your article!
    – Philip Bouchard

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