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wild grapes 2 June 2015


Grape leaves, like mini umbrellas, hug the shrubs that make up an understory of the edge of the tree line as I meander onto the meadow’s path. Older leaves take on the color of an evergreen while the younger ones are lighter as if the sun lingers a bit here before they age. Unripe fruit peeks out from under the leaves while tendrils grab hold of any plant in their way.

rsz_1rsz_dscn0242Two years ago I had the wonderful pleasure of helping prune a small vineyard in the Rappahannock River region of Virginia for two summers. I enjoyed getting in the fields at first light before the heat became too unbearable. With pruning shears and the songs of early morning birds, I clipped and tied vines and grape clusters to wires.


White tiny flowers “bloom” and then grapes appear. As they grow and get heavy care is needed to secure them to wires. Grape vines are apically dominant which means they produce leaves from the tip of the vine which can grow over long distances. In the wine industry that is not good as the energy of the plant goes to this extended growth. We’d have to trim the vine down to 20-30 leaves to keep the growth focused on the grapes themselves which also maintains grape quality.

Morning was hardly silent as birds swooped and chatted over the fields. Mist and fog often kept us soaked which was refreshing as the heat of the day moved in. Grapes like hot dry weather and irrigation systems are really not needed at least in the part of Virginia I worked. However, the damp humid air the east coast is known for, brings in fungus’, powdery and downy mildew and other pests such as deer.

Wine has been a popular drink for centuries. When the early colonists came to North America they brought Port’s and Madeira’s from Spain and Portugal. Thomas Jefferson fell in love with the lighter wines of Europe and he, among others, attempted to grow Vitus vinifera, the species native to Europe in Virginia with poor results. Vitus vinifera is subject to black rot, phylloxera, an aphid-like root louse. It wasn’t until later years through much experimentation that hardy native grape vines came to provide the rootstock for vitus vinifera varieties. These combined vines can grow with success as evidenced by the growing wine industry in states like Virginia.

Locally there are six grape species native to North America:

Vitus rotundifolia (muscadine), aestivalis (summer grape), riparia (frost grape), labrusca (fox grape), mustangenesis (Mustang grape) and rupestris (sand grape).

Most are not really prized for their taste in the wine industry. Over the years our native root stocks have been combined and combined with the European vitus vinifera in hundreds of experiments. Norton grape is the product of such experimentation and probably one of the most recognized variety of grape and wine here on the east coast.


There is a poisonous look a- like called Canada Moonseed, Menispermum canadense. Leaves are similarly shaped but the fruit contains only one seed, shaped like a crescent moon. Our native grapes have 2 or more seeds per fruit. This plant has no tendrils like our grapes do and fewer berries per cluster. It can cause severe abdominal pain and fatalities have been reported.

Please Note: only harvest and eat those plants you are sure of. Know proper identification characteristics and/or go with someone knowledgeable.

Next post I’ll go into uses and health benefits.

Enjoy. Judith

Judith Dreyer, MS, BSN, Writer, Speaker, Holistic Health Consultant and Workshop Presenter, Master Gardener. © all rights reserved. Including photos.


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