Facts About the Railroad Vine

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Facts about the railroad vine of the sandy beaches in tropical regions.

As you walk along the beach in the tropical areas on a typical summer day, you can't help but notice a long line of hundreds, even thousands, of violet flowers lining the upper portions of the shoreline. These flowers are actually that of the railroad vine, a pioneering species of plant that grow on the drier, salty and sandy banks marking the boundary of the beach. This plant can grow extensively on the beach, covering most part of it in areas not so frequented by people.

railroad vine along beach

The railroad vine, or scientifically called Ipomoea pes caprae, beautifies the landscape and adds to the aesthetic value of a beach due to the soothing green color of its broad leaves. The leaf is simple, arranged alternately, dark green and feels leathery. The leaf does not have hairs, has blades ranging from 2 to 4 inches held onto the stem by a long petiole.

The railroad vine's funnel-shaped flower oriented upwards are favorite feeding places of bees especially in the early mornings. The flower's conjoined petals radiates in five symmetrical sections (sympetalous) making it look like a starfish. 

railroad vine flower

During the early part of the morning, the flowers open up to show its beauty while in the early part of the afternoon, the flowers may close especially during windy periods. The petals neatly fold into some kind of a ball. Still, it looks amazingly attractive (see below).

railroad vine flower closed

The rairoad vine's seed pods are likewise appealing. The seed pods look like round balls of thread topped by a pin-like projection. When mature, four dark brown seeds called seabeans are revealed.

railroad vine seed pods

Growing Season

The railroad vine is an evergreen plant that grows towards the open beaches during the rainy parts of the year, usually most visible from May to November. It grows in almost all tropical areas worldwide ranging from 30 degress North latitude to 30 degrees South latitude.

Defense Mechanism

Animals do not feed on the railroad vine because the stems and leaves produce an alkaloid compound. Alkaloids are nitrogen-containing compounds produced by plants to defend themselves from grazers and most insects. The flowers, however, are not immune to plant-eating insects like beetles and grasshoppers.


The railroad vine is a good species for rehabilitating or preventing erosion in beach areas as the vine can grow with minimum nutrient and water requirements and is tolerant of soil with high salt content. It has deep roots (can grow and penetrate the ground to more than a meter) that help stabilize sandy and porous soil as well as rapid reproductive capabilities either through cuttings or through seeds. It is therefore an ideal beachfront ornamental plant.

The juice from the leaves of the railroad vine is known to cure jellyfish stings.




Smithsonian Marine Station