- Robert Frost, Wild Grapes
Like Frost, I've had a long love affair with wild grapes. Their lushness, their abundance, the mystery of their tangled vines have fascinated me since I was a little boy. The tangy tendrils and fruits excited my child's palate. And later, when I found the magic that a little sugar could do... Of course, I'm not alone. People have loved and made good use of grapes, both wild and cultivated for eons. North America has long been known for it's wild grapes. As far back as 1000 AD, Leif Ericsson told tales of a new country he named Vinland because of the abundance of wild grapes he found growing there.
Even today, three-fourths of the yield of all vineyards east of the Rocky Mountains is made up of grapes developed by selection from native wild grapes, or by crossing with European varieties. Going in the other direction, in the late 1800's, the European grape-growing industry was saved from a catastrophic attack by pests by grafting European vines onto resistant root stocks of American wild grape origin.
Individual species of wild grapes (About 20 in the U. S.) are so variable with so many overlapping characteristics that they're difficult to distinguish.
Look for wild grapes in forests, along riverbanks, or in fence rows. The vines have shredding bark and love to climb high in the trees. They have branched tendrils opposite some or all of the leaves. The leaves are simple and often prominently lobed and notched (Maple leaf-like). Like cultivated grapes, they fruit in clusters, but the grapes are usually smaller. They're light blue to black in color when ripe.
Be wary of confusing wild grape vines with the A HREF="http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/poison/Parthqu.htm>Virginia Creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which has poisonous fruits resembling grapes in size and color. The difference is that the Virginia creeper, unlike the grape, has palmately (spread out like fingers from the palm of your hand) compound leaves, each with five leaflets. The branches holding the purple fruit clusters are conspicuously red.
Another look-alike is Moonseed (Menispermum canadense L.), which has leaves that can be very similar to grape leaves, although the lobes tend to be noticeably rounded, usually not as sharp as with grape leaves and the stems are attached within the leaf margin, instead of at the edge of the leaf as with grapes. To make matters more difficult, the moonseed has small fruits that resemble grapes. However, one look at the single flat, crescent moon shaped seed and you'll know you're not dealing with a grape.
Grape vines are strong and flexible. They can become very big (8 inch diameter) and live for a century or more. They're fun for children to swing on (but stay close to the ground in case the vine breaks) The sturdy vines make beautiful, intricate baskets, wreathes, even fanciful domed structures big enough to hold several people.
In the spring, the tangy tendrils make a thirst-quenching trail-nibble or spring salad garnish. The leaves were traditionally used by farmers. They put them in their hats to keep their heads cool in the hot sun; their wives used them to get fermented pickles and sauerkraut off to a good start. And, of course, mediterranean cuisine is rich with foods cooked in grape-leaf wraps. Wild grapes are just as good as cultivated for jellies, preserves and pies. They just need more sugar. Better yet, wild grapes often hang on the vine for months, becoming sweeter after heavy frosts - A good resource at a time when there's generally less to eat in the woods.
Perhaps the easiest (and arguably the most delicious) way to use more than the few wild grapes your mouth can take at a time without permanently puckering up is as Grape Syrup. Served warm over a dish of homemade vanilla ice cream and topped with a few late-season fresh raspberries, it's the perfect dessert after an invigorating Late-Autumn day's hike in the woods.
A grape vine is a climbing, woody perennial, best recognized by its alternate simple leaves that are lobed and toothed, and by its purple, seeded berries that grow in bunches.
Wild grapes were used extensively by Native Americans (1). Grape vine, roots, leaves, and fruit were used as food, drink and tonic, to relieve pain, treat diarrhea, fevers, liver troubles, rheumatism, and even insanity. Grape Vine sap used as a wash for hair. The wilted leaves drew the soreness from a woman's breast after the birth of a child. During the wild rice harvest, if a piece of rice hull got into someone's eye, the Menominee squeezed the juice of a ripe frost Grape into the eye to remove it. Click on the species names for more details.
1. (From Dan Moerman's MPNADB - medicinal plants of Native America at Cornell University.)
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