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Delta Journal
by Bob Thomas

One of the most surprising discoveries when we research common local species is the high percentage that are non-native. Those that are difficult to manage and may cause harm to surrounding species are called invasives.

A somewhat common example is the Balloon Vine, Cardiospermum halicacabum (a really fun scientific name to pronounce phonetically), a genus and species belonging to the soapberry family (Sapindaceae) and described by Carolus Linnaeus. These common vines are native to the Old and New World tropics, escaping cultivation in the U.S. It occurs in the eastern U.S., and throughout Louisiana.

The common name derives from the seed bearing compartment looking somewhat like a Chinese lantern. The surface of the three-chambered balloon is papery. If squeezed, it will emit a popping sound and three seeds spill out. Each of the seeds have a whitish, heart-shaped marking, hence the generic name (Cardio = heart, sperma = seed). This also is the basis for another name for this plant – Love in a Puff (puff=the balloon; love=the hearts on the seeds).

The vines trail across the substrate, and usually climbing over other vegetation using tendrils that are located in the proximity of the non-descript white flowers. The plant prefers open sunlight, and often spreads across grassy areas, with the seed pods looking very much like lanterns hanging about at a lawn party.
Balloon vine seeds have been used for centuries by native cultures, especially in India and Africa, to treat skin itching and inflammation. It is the active ingredient in Florasone™, a natural alternative for cortisone creams.

Also published in Delta Journal, The Times-Picayune, September 24, 2008.