Wild Grapes supposedly with European heritage

Who ever first wrote the phrase “grapes of wrath” certainly must have been trying to identify a particular grape vine.

Grapes are at the same time easy to identify and maddening to identify. That one has a grape is pretty easy to sort out. Deciding which grape you have can bring on insanity. That problem is compounded in The South because there are native grapes, escaped hybrid grapes and a lot of cross breeding by Mom Nature. And the cause of it all is Pierce’s Disease.

Biologist Newton B. Pierce was studying grape disease in California about a century ago. At the time a mysterious disease affecting grapes was called Anaheim Disease. It was later was found to be the same disease causing problems in Florida. The disease was controlled in California but not in The South. While Pierce made great strides with the disease — got it named after him — it was not until 1978 that the insect-carried bacteria involved was finally identified. It was a detective story 400 years in the making.

In the 1500′s, a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and three hundred years before California became a state, the Spanish in Florida noticed a lot of wild grapes growing. They made wine from the native grapes and planted grapes from back home in Spain. Unfortunately, the European grapes died, and for more than 300 years that was the story of growing non-native grapes in Florida.

In 1891 some 60 grape varieties were planted mid-state and they, too, died. In 1894 over a thousand acres were planted further north in the state. They perished as well. It looked like the end of growing non-native grapes in Florida. Then the state’s agricultural service got involved and began hybridizing varieties of grapes that could be grown in Florida. They had early successes and over the course of several decades some of those successful hybrids escaped as well. So Florida has five kinds of grapes: Native muscadines, grapes descended from muscadines and early plantings of European grapes (let’s call them escaped cultivars) intentional hybrids under cultivation, intentional hybrids that have naturalized (often found unattended near old homesteads) and nearly any combination of the above. Now you know why grapes can be maddening.

Native muscadine grapes

The local muscadines and escaped cultivars fall into two groups, which as a forager you will come across from Florida to Texas. First is the pure muscadine native which has a single tendril with six to 30 grapes per cluster, not bunch, see at left. The second is group is escaped cultivars with split tendrils and bunches of grapes of 30 or more, see photo at top.  Now exactly which grape it is can be confusing. Not counting those specifically under cultivation you can find in the local wild Vitis rotunifolia, Vitis munsoniana, Vitis shuttleworthii, Vitis aestivalis, Vitis cinerea, and Vitis vulpina.  There are also many subspecies as well and over the years local tribes also spread the crossbreeds. (If that is not complicated enough some now think the forked-tendril grapes are not escaped cultivars but native. The botanical jury is still out on that one.)

If it has smooth bark, an unforked tendril, smooth, non-hairy leaves and you are north and west of the Suwanee River and the cluster of grapes number six to eight, it is probably V. rotundifolia. If you on the peninsula of Florida and it has smooth bark, non-hairy leaves, the tendril is unforked and the grapes are a cluster of 12 to 30 berries, then it is probably V. munsoniana. If you are in north or west Florida and you think you have V. rotundifolia or V. munsioniana but the bark on mature stems shreds in strips or squares you have V. vulpina.

Green Deane with grapevine at his grandfather’s house in Karea, Greece

Now it gets sticky:  If you have a forked tendril, a thick grape leaf that’s hairy below (whitish short hairs, sometimes light brown, that resemble felt) wrinkled on top (think quilted mattress) a downward curve from the mid-rib and a large semi-sweet fruit, you are in the lower two-thirds of the state and your feet could be wet, you could have V. shuttleworthii, which perhaps a variation of V. aestavalis. If you live in Texas and think you have a V. shutteworthii but the grape tastes fiery pungent, you have V. candicans. Incidentally, V. shutteworthii is the direct ancestor of the cultivated “Stover” grape.

If you have a forked tendril, a thin flat leaf, smooth on top, but hairy below (rust-colored hairs that are NOT felt-like) and you are in New Jersey or below, you probably have V. aestivalis, which has at least four subspecies, V. sola, V. simpsonii, V. smallinana, and V. divegent. The V. aestivalis and V. simpsonii was used in the creation of the Lake Emerald and Norris varieties. The V. aestivalis is also in the ancestry of V. bourquiniana varieties of Herbemont and Lenoir.

If you have a forked tendril, the leaf is wrinkled dull green on top, white hairy below, branchlets look white or gray and the leaf base is deeply indented, and you are in the northwest portion of the state it could be V. cinerea. That is the most common grape in southeastern North America, excluding Florida.

To recap, if possible: If it is a grape with smooth bark, a round leaf, and probably toothy, with a single tendril, it is a muscadine, V. rotundiafolia to the north and west of the state, V. munsoniana to the middle and south. If you have all that and the mature bark is in strips or squares, it is V. vulpina.

Grape with forked tendril

Grape with forked tendrils

If it has a forked tendril, the leaf is wrinkled on top and hairy underneath, and you are in the lower two thirds of the state and your feet are wet, it is probably V. shuttleworthii. If the leaf is smooth on top, hairy below, and has a forked tendril, and your feet are dry it is probably V. aestivalis. If it is wrinkled on top, hairy below, has a gray cast and you live in the western part of the state and north, it is V. cinerea. Whew!

If that is not confusing enough some argue the muscadines should not be in the Vitis genus at all and are rightfully the subgenus of Muscadinia because they have two more genes than the Vitis members.  They would also make at least two more species in the subgenus. I should also mention that bringing into The South grape roots or plants from elsewhere will probably end in death. Pierce’s Disease is known to kill of at least 300 different species of grape.

Grape with single tendrils

Grape with single tendrils

One question I hear often is why aren’t the native grapes producing? They always seem not to have grapes. There are two answers: One is 90% of the vines have male flowers and all they do is basically lie around drinking sun all the time producing nothing except a little pollen. And the gals? They fruit sporadically. However, the so-called non-native escaped cultivars produce almost every year.

As for pronunciation they are VEE-tiss (grape)  row-tun-dee-FOH-lee-ah (roundleaf) es-tuh-VAL-uhs (of the field) sin-EER-ee-uh (the color of cinders, ashes) KAND-ik-anz, kan-DEEK-anz  (white or wooly) vul-PEE-nah (fox) munso-nee-ANN-ah, simp-SON-ee-eye, bore-quin-nee-ANN-ah, ShuttleWORTH-ee-eye

Three tidbits:

  1. If you make grape jelly from muscadines don’t crush them bare handed or bare footed. The high acid content can lightly burn your hands or feet. Also, grape sap is drinkable.
  2. The grape vine, however, has a peculiar vascular arrangement. If you cut the vine it will not leak water unless you invert it. You can get a quart or more from a one-foot piece.
  3. In all English dialects except American English “vine” means the grape vine. In American English “vine” can mean many plants, not just the grape vine.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Grapes are woody vines with tendrils. Vines without tendrils that look like grapes are not grapes. The leaves vary greatly  in shape from serrated and round to heart-shaped and smooth to lobed and hairy.  The seeds of the grape are always tear-drop shaped. A grape-look alike is the moonseed which has seeds that are shaped like a crescent moon. Grapes in Florida tend to grow in clusters of two to 10, or bunches of 20 to 30  or more (not counting loss of numbers to birds and foraging humans.)  Fruits are blue to black. There are hybrids under cultivation — some 300 different ones — that can be green, red, blue or black and are often very large.

TIME OF YEAR: Mid-summer to late fall in Florida, more towards fall as one goes farther north. Locally September first is a good date to aim for.

ENVIRONMENT: Grapes like full sun, good drainage and a healthy amount of water. But, they will survive in dry areas, putting on small fruit. They can even be found growing in Florida swamps, so they are very adaptable.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Out of hand as they come off the vine. They can be made into jelly, jam, wine, raisins, fruit leather; the seeds can be pressed for oil and the young leaves boiled and eaten. The leaves of the hybrids are preferred to the muscadines. Muscadines can be high in acid so when crushing to make jelly don’t use your hand. Oh, and the seeds can be used to make grappa.

 

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Robert M. November 15, 2011 at 12:22

I love Grape Vine. Mostly Muscadine here. The leaves even taste like grapes. The grapes are on the sour side but good. I have never seen a poisonous Canadian Moonseed here but I think I would know by the tendrils growing around the stem and not outward or by the seed shape that it is not a Grape Vine.

It makes great woven baskets too. Just use the vine runners on and under the ground as they are better and more flexible than the above ground runners. There is a certain amount of shrinkage when the vine dries out so a tighter weave is better to account for any loosening.

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2 Robert M. November 15, 2011 at 12:25

Oh, and the larger Grape Vine trunks can yield a LOT of fresh clean and pure water. Cut a notch high to release the capillaries and then cut it low so it drips.

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3 Tommy Smith April 25, 2012 at 09:33

Great article.

Thanks
Tommy Smith

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4 Melia June 17, 2012 at 23:34

Wonderful site first off! Just read your article on grapes and have a few questions. A friend of mine has wild grapes growing on her land, what is the best way to get some started in my yard? We live in north Texas. The kind of grape she has makes good jelly she says but has too many seeds and thick skin so not good to eat off the vine. Would juicing get all (or most of) the nutrients out? I would like my 2 year old daughter to benefit from them also so looking for some healthy ideas. Thanks!!!

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5 Green Deane June 18, 2012 at 06:03

Juicing is good except you should extract the seeds first. Grapes are a long-term plant. In the ground today, fruiting several years from now.

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6 Jean August 7, 2012 at 13:15

I found vitus munsoniana in my neighborhood (Palm Bay) this AM. Nice ripe clusters of grapes. I will go back later to see if I can find enough to make something with…but I am a little confused, are the seeds safe to eat or grind up with the whole grape as in throw them into the vitamix blender and make a banana grape smoothie?

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7 Green Deane August 7, 2012 at 17:01

The seeds are pressed for their oil, and the mash used to make grappa. But they just don’t taste good. So while they won’t kill you in small quantities they are not pleasant tasting.

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8 Klaudette Kline June 23, 2013 at 17:30

There’s a weed that looks just like a grapevine, but instead of grapes, clusters of some other purple berry, definately NOT grapes. Any ideas as to what it is? Might the leaves be edible?

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9 Green Deane June 23, 2013 at 18:41

Probably Virgina Creeper… the entire plant is toxic.

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10 Rae Hancock August 26, 2013 at 12:13

Your website is my absolute favorite hands down compared to everything! I just bought a beautiful 4 acre property in NW Gainesville FL and I’m SO enjoying identifying all of the beautiful, useful, and edible plants. I even have a fruiting grapevine which I assume from your article is probably V. munsoniana. I’ve also got beautiberries, plums, and lots of other fun edibles. I will be donating to your site veery soon for the wealth of knowledge you’ve provided for my new property! Thanks so much for all that you do!

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11 Mazer November 6, 2013 at 00:04

I was out walking my friends dogs last week, found the wild grapes, they were mixed in with another vine, at first I was worried I would be collecting the wrong berry until I realized the other vine intermingled with the Wild Grapes, was not in fruit. I harvested 5 clusters. They are good, thick skins, light flavor big seeds for the fruit size and very refreshing. I cut some vines to propagate. I love this website and your videos, I wish you would come to Northern California just north of San Francisco. We have lots to check out here.

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12 Spencer Petri February 21, 2014 at 18:01

As kids here in East Texas we ate mustang grapes until our mouths were too sore to eat more. Post oak and riverbank grapes are my favorites, other than muscadines. What else can you get foot and water from as well have a place to swing on?

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13 Harold Riehl June 1, 2014 at 20:06

My young imature clusters are going fuzzy. Shouldn’t the small grapes stay round and continue to grow. The fuzzy ones will not have grapes, with the exception of a few that didn’t go fuzzy. Fuzzy is what I call the little small hair like things that come out of the little grape that used to be a round little grape. After looking at my viens, I’m afraid there won’t be many grapes again this year. I have a white seedless and concord. The white is two years and concord is three. Thanks for any help.

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14 Survival Gardener/David The Good July 1, 2014 at 21:31

@Harold

My bet is that you’re seeing blooms, not little grapes. The buds look like grapes until they open and release pollen. Your plants are young… prune them well before they leaf out next spring (or late winter) and I’ll bet you get some fruit next year.

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15 Bill Paxton August 6, 2014 at 10:28

You should visit Pa where we have V. labrusca (very large and edible) , V argentifolia, (palatable) – V. Nova-Angelae (never found a fruit yet), V. riparia (abundant but bitter), V. cinerea (very sweet,small but rare). V. rupestris and baileyiana. (even more rare). We also have V.vulpina.
I have eaten V. rotundifolia but find the berry cover VERY tough.
Would you be willing to send me seeds of your southern grapes (well and properly identified) for a key to the SEEDS that I am attempting ???
I am also illustrating them !!!

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