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Wild Grapes

Nature Bulletin No. 204

Forest Preserve District of Cook County

October 29, 1949

William N. Erickson, President

Roberts Mann Supt. of Conservation



In the year 1000 A.D., Leif Ericsson the Lucky sailed from Norway across the North Atlantic Ocean and returned with stories about a new country he named Vinland because of the abundance of wild grapes found growing there. Historians agree that Vinland was the east coast of North America but they are not sure where he first set foot.

Cultivated varieties of grapes have been grown on a large scale in the Old World since the dawn of history. Columbus brought them to Haiti in 1494 and, subsequently, they were introduced into what is now Eastern United States by dozens, of colonists. Invariably, these early plantings were attacked by a host of pests and diseases which did not seriously bother our native grapes. As a result, hardy new American varieties were developed by selection among the better native wild grapes, or by crossing these with European kinds. In this way, our Concord and Catawba varieties of cultivated grapes arose from our wild Northern Fox Grape, and the Scuppernong variety from the wild Southern Fox Grape or Muscadine, as well as many others. These kinds still make up three-fourths of the yield of our vineyards east of the Rocky Mountains. The great vine-growing regions of California are more suitable to the Old World varieties.

About 50 species of grapes are natives of the warm and temperate parts of the world, About 20 of these occur in the United States and a half-dozen are common in the Midwest. However, they are so variable and have so many overlapping characteristics that amateurs have trouble naming individual vines correctly.

Wild grapes are high-climbing or trailing woody vines with shaggy bark and branched tendrils opposite some or all of the leaves. The leaves are simple and often prominently lobed and notched. Like tame grapes, their fruit is borne in clusters, though usually small and light blue to black in color when ripe.

The common kinds of this region are the Summer Grape, the Frost Grape, the Sweet Winter Grape, the Northern Fox Grape, the Catbird Grape, and the Riverbank Grape; the first two being the most common.

Some wild grape vines grow quite large. One seen recently in the forest preserve is 8 inches in diameter and is estimated to be 80 years old. Children find that vines hanging from tall trees sometimes make good swings. They also love to chew the lemony tendrils, in spring. The fresh fragrance of the flowers is one of the most delightful wildwood odors. Farmers often put grape leaves in their hats to keep their heads cool in the broiling sun; their wives use them to flavor pickles; and some nationalities use them in their cooking of meat. The grapes are usually tart and fine for jellies, preserves, and pies. Some become sweeter after heavy frosts; and most of them hang on the vine all thru the winter, making a handy food supply for many birds and mammals, both large and small.

“ ........ the wild grapevine

That used to climb the highest tree

To keep the ripest ones for me."

- James Whitcomb Riley

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