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 off 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.



If you would like to donate to Eat The Weeds please click here.

Apples, Wild Crabapples

1 September 2014


Read the full article →

Chokeberry: Bushy Health Food

22 August 2014

It’s a long ways from the mountains of Maine down the Appalachian Trail to the mountains of western North Carolina. It is also a long ways from ones 20’s to ones 60’s. These distances revealed themselves recently when I notice a plant while hiking in the Smokies. It was familiar but not familiar, a wrong […]

Read the full article →

American Lotus: Worth Getting Wet For

21 July 2014

 More American than apple pie Nature fights back. Much of Florida is giving way to housing. For several years I passed a large abandoned pasture with a dry lake bed. Then it was developed into a subdivision and the lake watered again. For a while very little seemed to grow in the lake and then […]

Read the full article →

Chickasaw Plum: Yum

17 June 2014

 Chickasaw Plum: First Springtime Blossom Every spring, three wild plums put on a show locally: The Chickasaw, the Flatwood, and the American. They burst out in white blossoms and no leaves. When in naked bloom they look similar but that’s where the resemblance stops. The Chickasaw and the American go on to produce consistently edible […]

Read the full article →

Can We Eat Grass?

8 January 2014

That simple question has a complex answer: Yes, no, and maybe.  It’s a topic I explored in a recent Green Deane Newsletter and the basis for this article. Strictly speaking we eat a lot of grass, but in the form of grain: Wheat, rice, rye, barley, millet, sprouts et cetera. What most folks want to […]

Read the full article →

A Pitch For Spruce Gum

29 December 2013

Real spruce gum is not easy to chew. It is not soft or sweet. Hard and crumbly is more accurate along with pieces of bark and bits of insects. But if you have good teeth and patience it will in time become a stiff gum. And if you leave it on your bedpost over night […]

Read the full article →

Winter Foraging

15 November 2013

The thermometer was near zero one day when I was on ice skates collecting frozen cranberries. The cranberries were conveniently above the ice just waiting to be harvested. I was on the north end of “Gowen’s Pond” in Pownal, Maine. It was at that end where water seeped into the pond to make the couple […]

Read the full article →

Acorns: The Inside Story

25 October 2013

 Acorn: More than a survival food The first time you eat an acorn it makes you wonder what the squirrels are going nuts about.  As the bitterness twists your mouth into a pucker it reminds you animals can eat a lot of things we can’t… unless we modify them. A lot has been said about […]

Read the full article →

Fireweed Sale

15 August 2013


Read the full article →

Bunya Pine

25 July 2013

The Australian Aboriginals knew a good thing when they tasted it. So did the immigrants. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like the taste of Bunya Pine nuts. But you will find people who don’t like to clean up after it because the ancient species sheds sharp leaves and heavy cones. As a well-fed […]

Read the full article →

Amaranth: Grain, Vegetable, Icon

22 July 2013

 Amaranth, the forgotten food A book could be written about amaranth, and probably has, if not several. A grain, a green, a cultural icon, a religious symbol… amaranth is colorful plant with a colorful history. It’s also nutritious. Amaranth was a staple of pre-Colombian Aztecs, who imbued it with supernatural powers and made it part […]

Read the full article →

Strawberries of Spring

20 June 2013


Read the full article →