It bears a name at once both celestial and terrestrial, evoking an image of Jack’s beanstalk climbing from field to clouds, a green rope winding its way from Shakespeare’s “sullen earth” to farthest heaven, a stem of vegetation reaching to the night sky—starvine. And for the shuttle road that links Emory’s residential Clairmont Campus with the main campus—across a rainbow-arch bridge over the CSX railroad tracks—it lends an equally suggestive name: Starvine Way, perhaps a winding starlit path.
This obscure plant, the starvine, hides throughout Lullwater, the 150-acre preserve that also harbors the home of the Emory president. Starvine sprouts in other parts of the Emory Forest as well, a botanical treasure whose threatened existence in the Southeast, its only native habitat, makes Emory perhaps its most important home anywhere in the world.
I first became acquainted with starvine as a name on a list of plants indigenous to Lullwater. When the University was building the shuttle road in 1999–2000, it needed a name. Because the road hugs the edge of Lullwater, I searched the list of indigenous plants included in the report on Emory forests prepared in 1986 by biology professors Bill Murdy and Eloise Carter. And there was starvine–a poet’s name for a threatened species.
Also called bay starvine or magnolia starvine, its scientific name is schisandra glabra. Emory environmentalists have taken to calling it American starvine, to distinguish it further from its more prolific Asian cousin, Chinese starvine (schisandra chinensis). Slender tendrils with widely spaced, shiny green leaves trail along the ground or stretch up in little palm-tree-like stalks or twine themselves around slender saplings to pull themselves up toward the sun.
Born in leaf litter, the vine reaches for the light and sometimes shoots up twenty feet or more toward the tops of its host trees, which include the rare broad-leaved or umbrella magnolias (not the non-indigenous Southern magnolia, which was imported to these parts). The vine’s red berries open, when ripe, into a five-petal flower with a rounded star shape.
Around the starvine grow other wild medicinal celebrities: the bane berry bush with its small fruits that look like porcelain doll’s eyes (a poisonous plant, as the name suggests, except in very small amounts brewed in tea for headaches, coughs, and colds); sweet shrub (useful for nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea); spice bush (for colds, dysentery, intestinal parasites); and, perhaps most striking, wild ginseng (for higher mental and physical energy and reduction of stress).
These plants, growing on the north-facing slopes of Emory’s protected forested acres, make the woods of the campus places where idle strolling leads to scientific speculation. Carl Brown, an adjunct faculty member in Environmental Sciences, has taught me almost everything I know about starvine. Carl and others have been working with descendants of the Creek Indians who once inhabited this area to determine whether Native Americans used starvine for healing.
Kirk Hines, a horticultural therapist at the A.G. Rhodes Home on Emory’s Wesley Woods campus, has engaged residents of the home in planting seeds and cultivating an experimental starvine “vineyard” as one of the therapeutic activities he directs.
It may be time for the little plant to have its day in the sun — but it really prefers filtered light, with dappled shade. Halfway between earth and heaven.
For more about the cultivation and study of starvine at Emory, check out the “Emory Report” article by Kimber Williams.