Until I moved to North Carolina in 1996, my only experience with wild grapes was with the American labrusca types, or fox grapes from which the Concord variety was selected. They were great for making jelly and juice, but were usually tart and not the greatest table grapes.
Yields are also variable. They are susceptible to several diseases though nothing compared to the European types. Neither of these perform well here, so you rarely see them fruiting in the wild. Cold temperature tolerance is their greatest plus.
Our Muscadine types, (Vitis muscadinia rotundifolia), have such a unique pleasing flavor that we take it for granted how lucky we are. They don’t flourish where temperatures plunge below zero in the winter and their skins are thick and leathery. However, their resistance to disease renders them extremely abundant. Warm southern climate with longer summers is responsible for their high sugar content.
Wild muscadines have a long history. In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh commented on their abundance. They have been a valuable food source for southerners ever since. More than four and a quarter centuries later I share his affinity for them. They make great jelly and the juice is to die for as far as I’m concerned. The green or Scuppernong types are just as delectable as purple ones.
Muscadines contain large amounts of a cancer fighting compound called resveratrol. This chemical has also been linked to lowering cholesterol levels and the risk of coronary heart disease. It is also important in establishing the disease resistance of the plant itself. Another compound found in muscadines is ellagic acid, thought to be a cancer inhibitor as well. Additionally, grapes are very high in fiber, particularly soluble fiber.
Should you wander through the edges of the woods in the fall you might notice that some vines are prolific and others are not. Part of the reason for this is that muscadines are dioeceous. Functional male and female flowers reside on different plants. The leaves have a toothy appearance compared to other types of grapes, which makes them easy to spot. Fruit is also borne in smaller clusters than on the bunch type grapes.
Despite the smaller clusters of fruit it is rarely difficult to find gallons of them. Muscadines thrive in many types of soil. You’ll probably see plenty of wildlife too and there will still be abundant grapes to go around. Best of all they are good for you and no poisonous species closely resemble them.
On the down side the fruits can be out of reach and difficult to harvest. Furthermore, vines of any kind damage trees and shrubs. Fortunately, most of the trees affected by grapes are on the edges of the woods. These trees usually have many branches and aren’t prime timber anyway.
Wild muscadine grapes are tasty and abundant. I like to take my students behind the school in the fall so they can enjoy some. The season can be a month long in a cool autumn, leaving plenty of time to gather a good gob of them. They’re everywhere.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.