Madeira Vine – a permaculture food plant, or a rampant and destructive invasive?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you will know that I’m very concerned about the encouragement of the use of invasive or potentially invasive species in permaculture (you can see where I’ve written on the subject here and here).

Now the folks at Milkwood Permaculture have thrown up a curly one – they’ve just posted on how Madeira Vine not only has edible leaves and tubers, but is widely eaten and cultivated in Japan, where it is known as “land seaweed” (okawakame)

Typical effect of unchecked Madeira Vine [from Milkwood Permaculture blog]

As they point out, Madeira Vine is an already “adapted, perennial, zero footprint and highly nutritious food plant” with the following characteristics which are desirable in a food plant:

  • “It grows without much assistance, is hardy and produces prolifically.
  • It requires minimal cultivation.
  • It dominates an area where it is planted (meaning far less weed control is needed)
  • It is spread only* by humans and by water flows distributing the bubils – an easy factor to contain with good design.”

The Milkwood guys are  planning on having it as a food plant in their garden.  They recognise that it is a potential problem, and will manage it by eating it and stopping it from spreading.

So, should we incorporate Madeira Vine into our permaculture food production?

My first question would be: Just how weedy/invasive is it really?

Madeira vine grows prolifically at rates of up to 1 m per week in high-light environments.  It produces large numbers of subterranean and aerial tubers that not only act as reproductive bodies, but also provide the plant with a carbohydrate source that enables it to survive through difficult times. As a consequence, Madeira vine can tolerate a range of adverse conditions including drought, snow and frost, and it has been found growing in areas as diverse as rainforests, riparian fringes, rocky outcrops and frontal dunes (source).  This same ability to tolerate adverse conditions also means that the tubers can survive for very long periods of time in suspended animation, before they experience the right conditions to shoot (source).

The vine reproduces through the proliferation of aerial tubers and also from rhizome (subterranean tuber) fragments that may be broken off (source).  The aerial tubers can persist for two to 15 years and rhizomes for five to 10 years, with tuber germination rates of up to 70 per cent (source).  Although Madeira Vine is widely believed not to set seed in Australia, up to 5% of dried flowers collected from southeast Queensland were found to contain germinable seed (see #Vivian-Smith et al, below).

Dispersal is believed to occur primarily* via human spread (cultivation for ornamental purposes, disposal of vegetative material and tubers, e.g. in green waste (source), or being spread by machinery and/or gravel during road construction).  However it also spreads downslope under the influence of gravity and water movement from ridges and down watershed, and via floods (source).

Saying that it is spread primarily by humans needs to be considered in relation to just how widespread it is, what a significant destroyer of habitats it is once established, and how extremely difficult it is to eradicate once established.  Here is how the Environment Australia weeds database summarises the facts about Madeira Vine:

Madeira Vine is a Weed of National Significance (WONS). It is regarded as one of the worst weeds in Australia because of its invasiveness, potential for spread, and economic and environmental impacts.

Madeira Vine has aggressive vegetative growth which competes with and replaces other vegetation, and is difficult to control once established. Its aggressive nature gives it the potential to smother other desirable plants. Its sheer weight is capable of breaking branches off trees, thereby reducing them to poles, potentially causing collapse of the rainforest canopy (ISSG 2006). It restricts light and thereby prevents germination of desirable native species (Harley undated).

Should we then include Madeira Vine in permaculture food production?  I think there are two things to take into account before making a decision on this.

First, the permaculture ethics of care for the Earth and care for people.  The potential impacts on the Earth from Madeira Vine escapes are obvious (see the sources and photo above) and well documented, as are its impacts on the people whose properties and amenity are impacted.

Second, based on an assessment of invasiveness and impact, Madeira vine was ranked 5th worst of1060 naturalised south-east Queensland plant species (#Batianoff & Butler, below).  How are you going to ensure that:

  • no seed is set, and neither seed nor tuber material is distributed by animals, or other agents of dispersal, including water (i.e. the area where you will grow it will never flood or be exposed to high volumes of water runoff;
  • everyone who works on your garden or caretakes for you while you are away is as careful as you would be not to allow any dispersal of aerial tubers, (fragments of) rhizomes or seeds;
  • before you move on, you will have somehow removed all aerial tubers and every last fragment of rhizome before you leave, or failing this, you have some guarantee that the next landholder is going to take the same careful management approach as you?

– – – – – – – –

*I consider the statement that it is spread “only by humans and by water flows distributing the bubils – an easy factor to contain with good design” to be dangerously simplistic for a number of reasons.  First, once a Madeira Vine has established itself in a vegetated area it does not sit and wait for humans or water flows to come along and move its tubers or rhizomes.  The tubers are spread naturally when they fall from the adult plants where they have climbed up and across the canopy (often a considerable distance) from where they originally grew. Second, anywhere that an established population of Madeira Vine grows over a waterway that even only occasionally flows, this will distribute the plant to any and all areas downstream.  Third, saying that it is spread “by humans” without mentioning the many ways in which human activity can spread the plant, or the very long viability period of the tubers, gives a very misleading impression of the ease with which human activity can (even unwittingly) result in spread.

Here is a rather more informative account of how it is spread:

The most common means of reproduction and spread is via asexual tubers formed on the roots and stems. Prolific numbers of aerial tubers are produced throughout the year, which drop to the ground when mature or in response to stress. Research indicates that aerial tubers can persist for two to 15 years and subterranean tubers for five to 10 years, with tuber germination rates of up to 70 per cent. In areas of heavy infestation, soil tuber densities are up to 1500 per m2. Madeira vine is also capable of shooting from sections of severed vine.

Dispersal occurs primarily via human spread such as cultivation for ornamental purposes, disposal in green waste, or spread by machinery during road construction. It can also spread via gravity and water movement from ridges and watersheds or during floods. Mammals and birds may also play a minor role in localised spread.
While seed production is believed to be rare in Australia, research indicates that up to 5 per cent of dried flowers collected from southeast Queensland contain germinable seed. It is speculated that seed set and germination may only occur under ideal environmental and seasonal conditions.

 Sources which aren’t linked above:

#Vivian-Smith et al, Alan Fletcher Research Station QLD Unpublished data (cited in this source)

#Batianoff, G.N. and Butler, D.W. (2002). Assessment of invasive naturalized plants in south- east Queensland. Plant Protection Quarterly 17: 27–34.


8 thoughts on “Madeira Vine – a permaculture food plant, or a rampant and destructive invasive?

  1. Just for the record, we’re not saying that it’s a great idea for people to grow (ie cultivate) weeds like madeira vine in their food gardens.

    What we are saying is that eating it (since it’s highly edible +nutritious and all that) seem like a good part of a management plan as we attempt to remove it from our garden.

    Suggesting that people harvest and eat a pest is not the same (at all) as suggesting people cultivate it.

    That’s like saying that everyone who goes rabbit shooting for food also secretly promotes + encourages the spread of rabbits somehow, by doing so.

    We’re just saying that using the available food resources around you (whether they be madeira vine, or rabbits) is an ethical way to reduce your dependance on industrial agriculture. And extra ethical if it’s helping manage/reduce an invasive pest. 🙂

    • Hi Kirsten. It’s a long while ago now, but my impression was that you were proposing to keep cultivating madeira vine in your garden so you could harvest it. All my comments were directed to that understanding, so if you were only suggesting that people scrump wild growing vine (being careful not to spread it in the process), then I agree that would not be too different to hunting rabbits, though of course the dead rabbits are not likely to do any breeding if you were to accidentally drop one or two on the way home, or were careless about throwing propagative material into the comopost heap.

  2. Ps i would absolutely not plant this on my property if it would grow here, same way i wouldnt plant japanese knotweed. But if it showed up i would deal with it. Not whine about someone bringing it here. Also i couldnt care less if it was growing rampant in the wild. Plants are plants those that get squeezed will adapt or die the same wat every single other living thing does. Thats how life works. People suffer often because of their belief in a steady state, and steady states do not exist. Everything is in flux. The only persistent problem here is not madeira but human intelligence and lack thereof.

    Funny how all the lemmings believe in climate change and almost none of them have any idea they are the implied cause. None see prolofic food plants as answer. Instead they advocate barren ‘natural landscapes’ read uninfluenced by man. Nearly all support monoculture on a daily basis and then war against a single plant because it threatens some man influenced edge environment.

    Sorry i just dont see any logic in allowing environmentalists to be turned against hardy plants and carbon. Its the ultimate slap in the face and the lemmings chare right off the cliff because they read some academic or government bulletin. Absurd

    • Keith, I’m not going to give you a lecture on ecology or plant succession. There isn’t the space and from the tone of your comments I doubt you’d be interested, so I’ll respond only in relation to the principles and processes you have referred to.

      But first I have to point out that madeira vine doesn’t just threaten “man influenced edge environment” (which by the way is different to the “human altered landscapes” you referred to in your earlier comment). Because of its growth and dispersal strategies it is a threat to any reasonably well watered shrub or forest habitat, whether natural or human-influenced.

      Your view that the introduction of something like madeira vine into a natural landscape is just a part of natural processes and is “how life works” is dangerously simplistic. It is also at odds with your denigration of agricultural monocultures. Are you saying that after madeira vine is introduced into a pristine forest, if natural processes result in a (near) monoculture of madeira vine replacing the previous diversity of plant species (and all their dependent organisms: bacteria, fungi, insects, vertebrates, etc.) then this is OK with you because it is a natural process?

      Such a view is not only simplistic but is also at odds with your tirade against humans who “tear down thousands of acres of prairie or oak forest” to create “monocultures” in their role as a “major weed”. Do you view humans as a part of nature or not? Why are you discriminating between humans as a weed (your definition) creating monoculture and madeira vine as a weed creating monoculture? The impacts are the same, apart from some differences in scale – but if madeira vine gets into all the habitats globally that can support it then you will see that the difference isn’t one of scale, only of time.

  3. Humans are the major weed. All else is academic. Nature doesnt care avout academy. Plants arent good or evil. Most people arent either, but if something is, it is humans. So its ok for someone to tear down thousands of acres of praire or oak forest to grow corn or broccoli but not for some joe schmo to use his free flowing spinach vine? Because of ecologists who see madeira exploit human altered landscapes? Man humans are dopey

    • Hi Keith. I’d have to agree with you that by most definitions of “weediness” the human species qualifies as a weed (apart of course from not being plants, but maybe that just puts them into the “feral” category). I think you misunderstood my post. I didn’t mention good or evil, and I didn’t say one shouldn’t use madeira vine. It is the cultivation of it, or the maintenance of a population of it, that introduces a risk that it will escape at some stage that is the problem. Madeira vine doesn’t just “exploit human altered landscapes”. It will colonise any habitat where it gains a foothold because it’s ability to climb to the top of the canopy and spread from there means that I can out-compete other plants for sunlight. This fact combined with its very effective dispersal strategies makes it a major threat.

  4. I don’t think the guys at Milkwood are suggesting that we spread Madeira Vine around. To me the post was more about the mindset of putting ‘weeds’ in one box and ‘food’ in another. They have little chance of eradicating this weed (which is already on their property), so controlling it via eating seems like a good way to deal with it.

    • I’m all for getting over the mindset of ‘weeds’ in one box and ‘food’ in another, or even the idea that all weeds are bad and have to be removed on sight. But I’m not sure that they have little chance of eradicating Madeira Vine from what looks like a suburban garden (see photos in this blog post:, and they seem to be confident that they have eradicated it from another area of the garden.

      However the idea that something as invasive and impacting as Madeira Vine can be “safely” grown for food and will never spread from that location borders on loony in my opinion, and smacks of a very common idea among leading permaculture practitioners that we get too hung up about not growing things labelled as “invasive” in our permaculture plots, because the ecosystem can look after itself. People like the Milkwood crew should be setting the example and not giving the impression that it is ok to grow things like Madiera Vine in their food gardens.

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