By George N. Diamantis

container of red grapes and green grape leaves

Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, my mother always had a lush garden full of vibrant plants. I remember watching my mother tend to her plants while playing with my toy trucks in the dirt. She had a wide variety of colorful plants such as roses, hydrangeas, marigolds, hostas, begonias, and zinnias just to name a few. In the early spring mornings, I remember smelling the flower’s aroma and gazing upon the beauty of all the different brightly-colored plants. Not only did my mother have a flourishing flower garden, but she also had a selection of crops that she would harvest such as tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, basil, mint, and a grapevine. However, unlike all the rest of the plants in my mother’s garden, I took a particular interest in the grapevine.

leaves of a grape vine crawling up a wooden fence
the delicious grapevine leaf - waiting to be harvested in the author's backyard

Even though grapevines are usually traditional for producing grape juice, jelly, raisins, table grapes, and wine, many Mediterranean cuisines use the whole plant for food. In particular, the leaves are used to make a popular Mediterranean dish called Dolmathes—better known as grape leaves. I remember, as a child, getting excited when my mother would pick grape leaves from our grapevine because that would mean that she would be making Dolmathes, or as we called them in our household, Fela. Dolmathes consist of seasoned ground meat mixed with rice wrapped in a grapevine leaf. Dolmathes are not only common in Mediterranean cuisine, you can also find them on dinner tables in the Middle East and the Balkans.

My mother taught me how to make Dolmathes and how to pick the best quality grapevine leaves. The ideal size of grapevine leaves are harvested when the leaves are a deep green color and a little bigger than the palm of the hand. If you harvest grapevine leaves that are smaller than the palm of the hand, then you will need more than one grapevine leaf to make one Dolmathes, which could result in the Dolmathes falling apart while cooking. When my mother picks grapevine leaves, she stores them in either a jar filled with water or rolls them in foil and stores them in the freezer. This means we can eat these tasty delights year round, even during the freezing winter months when the grapevine has no leaves! The luxury of having a grapevine is that picking the leaves stimulates new growth and spurs the vine to develop more leaves. After about July in Pennsylvania, grapevine leaves become tough and difficult to chew, so I do not recommended picking leaves after July.

a white bowl full of delicious Fela, or Domathes.
Homemade Fela, or Dolmathes, with hand picked grapevine leaves.

In the fall, particularly starting in November, you should cut the vine back so the plant will be ready for the winter. Winter frost and cold can injure or even kill the vine if the base of the plant is not protected. My mother likes to pile decaying leaves around the cut stem while other people use straw to keep the grapevine warm during the cold months. Then, in the spring, you can watch the grapevine grow. It is rewarding to watch the plant grow from a small bud to developing into mature leaves that are ready for harvesting.

I first learned about the grapevine as a child from my mother. Growing up in a Greek-Italian family and being exposed to the culture has taught me about grapevine and has introduced a favorite dish that my whole family enjoys year round (not just for holidays!). I personally recommend growing a grapevine in any backyard because it is one of the most useful plants in a garden and am thankful this one plant has given me and my family so much.


George is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Psychology. He is 25 years old and has aspirations to apply to medical school in the near future.

Photos: top (grapes and leaves - Photo by Cassie Matias on Unsplash), middle and bottom provided by the author

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By Niamh Greer, Ellie Kim and Adelaid Seigworth

Art by Keelin McKiernan

the silhouette of two children standing in front of a large holly bush.

Once upon a childhood

I had a secret place

Where I would go with my brother, talking face to face

In the bush of hardwood

Where we never stood

In our secret hideout, there was plenty of space

We could be ourselves, we didn’t keep a straight face

Life was all good

Holly grew into the house

So we had to cut her down

Remnants of all life were gone, even the life of a mouse

Growing out of childhood was a real put-down

Devoid of all life like a dollhouse

Until grass sprouted up and made a new, mini town


Ellie, Adaelaid, Keelin, and Niamh are all eighth graders at North Hills Middle School. This poem and associated artwork won Special Merit in the Plant Love Story Challenge hosted by the Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens.

Congratulations to the team from your friends at Plant Love Stories!

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By Koa Reitz

author, smiling and holding a large yellow sycamore leaf she collected in the fall
The author can still find leaves larger than her head! Here, American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

One of my earliest memories as a child is my friend finding a big leaf when we were at the park, and me bursting into tears because I wasn’t the one who found it. Fall was my favorite season because as I walked around, there were plenty of things for me to pick up! I was absolutely captivated by the leaves that fell off of the trees, and would pick up as many as I could. I don’t remember why I was so attached to these leaves–the dead part of the plants around me–but I would always end up with a stack of leaves when I got home.

I think a big part of my obsession with collecting leaves was their colors. But sometimes I would find a particularly big leaf and, as a small child, I was absolutely dumbfounded at the leaf bigger than my head. I had to have them. When I brought the leaves home however, I never kept them, they would sit outside for a while until they would eventually blow away or decompose in the yard. This wasn’t exactly an issue for my young self, as object permanence had yet to fully develop. And there were always more leaves to find!

As I grew up, I became less and less invested in picking up all of the leaves I saw. I think eventually I saw so many that it was hard to find a new color combination I had yet to see, so leaf searching had lost its allure. I would still stop to look at the leaves when there was a particularly vibrant red, or an exciting combination of green, yellow, and orange all in the same leaf, but I left the leaf where it stood. No more collecting for me.

the author standing in a narrow aisle lined by white cabinets full of herbarium records at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History
The author stands among the botanical collections at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's herbarium in Pittsburgh, PA.

Until recently, I had no reason to think that collecting plants could have any purpose, scientific or otherwise. Contrary to my thinking, there is a vast and important process of collecting and storing plants, of all kinds, to be used for reference and scientific research. Herbaria are collections of preserved plants dating as far back as hundreds of years ago. These specimens can be used for a variety of things including taxonomic classifications (scientific naming systems), DNA sequencing, and phenological observations. Phenology is the study of the time when certain things in the life cycle of a plant happen. For example, phenology can look at the time in a flowering plant’s life that it begins growing new leaves, when it grows flowers, when it develops its fruit, or when leaves turn colors in the Fall. Phenological data from herbaria have been used to look into the past in ways that wouldn’t be possible without a collection of old, dead, plants. A group of scientists at Boston University used herbarium specimens to determine that a warmer climate led to earlier flowering times. This conclusion has various implications including evidence that a warming planet has concrete impacts on the natural environment and changes how we look at climate science overall. It is important to look to the past if we’re going to make informed decisions about the future, and herbaria are full of accessible and valuable information that can help develop scientific claims of all different kinds.

I am particularly interested in Herbaria because of my work in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Herbarium. It was compelling to me to work with scads of cabinets full of dead plant specimens. Currently, I am working on a project where I look at digitized Chorispora tenella (purple mustard) specimens in the Carnegie Museum Herbarium, and herbaria from all over the US. Chorispora tenella is a plant that is invasive in parts of the Western US, and we are looking to see how the phenology has changed over the course of its invasion. There are endless questions about the timing of flowering or the spatial differences in flower or fruit number, just to name a few. I think I started to form a relationship with the plants, as I look at image after image and count the number of flower buds, flowers, and fruits, just as I had formed a relationship with the fallen leaves when I was young.

There’s so much to learn from these seemingly simple and still specimens. When I do this work, it brings me back to when I was a child and had the (not so permanent) leaf collections of my own. I think there was a part of me as a child that wished to observe what I gathered further, but I had no method or resources to preserve my collections. Now, with herbaria, there’s access to thousands of species of plants that span all over the world. They open up countless lines of study and things to learn and explore, all from dead plants in cabinets. I even find myself collecting and questioning things again, renewing my sense of exploration. And I still make time to find leaves bigger than my head.

Above: purple mustard (Chorispora tenella ) botanical specimens stored at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.**

Koa is an undergraduate student studying Ecology and Evolution at the University of Pittsburgh, and a research intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. She is particularly interested in plant ecology and how plants can shape ecosystems.

** To learn more about these natural history specimens, you can visit the Mid-Atlantic Herbaria Consortium. Specimens are as follows (left to right): CM356992 collected in 1989 in Oregon; CM448686 collected in 1939 in Idaho; CM288678 collected in 1981 in Colorado; and CM288281 collected in 1982 in Colorado.

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