Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Vitis rotundifolia, or the Muscadine grape. Muscadines are, without a doubt, one of the sweetest parts of living in the South. Like football, county fairs, and corn mazes, they’re one of the first heralds of fall. And undoubtedly, they’re one of our (and a lot of other people’s) favorite wild fruits.
Muscadines are easily identifiable as members of the grape family. They’re a hardy, vigorous, perennial woody vine that usually climbs to a height of 40’-60,’ although it can get much taller if it has enough light and water. The vines can get as big around as your wrist, but thumb size is much more common. Muscadine vines look just like, well, grape vines. They have the same distinctive twisty, knotty growth habit of domestic grapes, and have rough, gray-brown bark that peels off in long strips as the vines mature. The leaves are round or heart-shaped (hence the Latin surname rotundifolia), and have distinctive serrated edges. They are a bright yellow-green, and smaller than domestic grape leaves – about 2”-3” across on average. Muscadines bloom in late spring after they fully leaf out. Flower panicles are a few inches long and are shaped like little grape clusters – flowers are tiny, round, and white. Muscadines have no deadly or toxic mimics. The only thing in the Eastern Woodlands that’s close to a lookalike is the Fox Grape, their rarer and much more ambitious cousin. Fox grapes are an interesting species in their own right, living deep in mature cove forests and climbing up to 200’ to thrive in the sunlight of the forest canopy. Of course, the most distinguishing characteristic of muscadines is obviously their fruit. For all y’all Yankees, Californians, and other transplants who didn’t grow up eating them, muscadines look like deep purple or black thick-skinned grapes. They have an intense, tart, grape flavor with a hint of “muskiness” or bitterness, owing to the high concentrations of tannins in the seeds and skins. There is nothing else on earth that tastes quite like them. They don’t grow in neat bunches like table grapes, but rather in open clusters or even individually. We should probably take a moment here to talk about the Scuppernong, or Golden Muscadine. If you see a wild grape vine that looks just like a muscadine, but has rich golden fruit instead of dark purple, well, congratulations: You’ve found yourself a scuppernong. Scuppernongs are very sweet and have a distinctive musky flavor that is akin to a muscadine, but definitely unique in its own right. Whenever you find scuppernongs in the woods, you’ve probably also found an abandoned homestead site. Scuppernongs are quite rare in the wild, only native to a small patch of the South Carolina Piedmont around the Scupperong River. However, early settlers and Indians alike planted them everywhere they went. Muscadines, on the other hand, are very common across the entire swath of the Southeast, from Virginia to Texas and from Florida north to Kentucky. They aren’t picky about habitat, growing in creek bottoms and dry uplands alike. They’ll grow in the deep woods, but your best bets for finding fruit are open, disturbed areas like field edges, forest clearings, and roadsides. The more sun the vines get, the better they’ll fruit. However, they still need something to climb on to support themselves, so you won’t find them growing without trees or shrubs to help them along. In North Georgia, muscadines usually fruit from late August to the first part of October. Harvests are cyclical, and dependent on a whole host of factors. Some years you won’t get any, but the next year will be a bumper crop. Grapes move in mysterious ways. 2017 was probably the largest harvest I’ve ever seen in my life – I was able to get over two hundred pounds of fruit from the vines in front of my house.
Although a great plant all around, the primary appeal of muscadines is always going to be their fruit. A common question from the uninitiated (read: northerners) is, how do you eat them? There are two schools of thought. One is to nip a tiny hole in the leathery skin, pop the innards into your mouth, work it all around in your mouth, throw away the skin, and spit out the seeds. The other is to eat the whole thing, minus the seeds. Option two allows you to get more of the nutritional value, much of which is contained in the skins. However, muscadine skins rarely digest completely, so if you’re going to eat much more than a handful, go with option one, or you’ll be cruising towards serious gastric distress the following day. It’s really a matter of personal preference. Just eat a few, you’ll figure it out. Muscadines also make a superb jelly, and some swear by making pies from them. Apparently the skins cook down and become tender. I’ve had success making a sauce out of them to serve with grilled venison backstrap. The tart, intense grape flavor really pairs nicely with red meat. Of course, we couldn’t have a discussion about muscadines without mentioning wine. Generally when someone in the South talks about homemade wine, muscadine wine is what they’re referring to. Muscadine wine is strong, tart, and very sweet. I made some during last year’s harvest of a lifetime, and just started bottling it up about two weeks ago. Here’s the recipe I used, courtesy of Field & Stream:
“You will need:
1 gallon (and a little more) muscadines
3 gallons distilled water
1 package yeast (not rapid rise)
8 pounds sugar
Crush the fruit in a plastic bag, or place it in a freezer until the skins burst. (Wear rubber gloves while crushing muscadines; they are highly acidic.) Combine with distilled water (save the empty jugs) and yeast in a clean 5-gallon bucket. Stir well. Cover and let it stand for 24 hours. Strain pulp from the mixture by pouring it through a double layer of cheesecloth into a second clean 5-gallon bucket. Stir in the sugar until it is dissolved. Pour the liquid into the empty water jugs. You'll need a couple of extras besides the ones from the water used for the recipe. Top the mouths of the jugs with a triple layer of cheesecloth held in place with rubber bands. The fermenting juice will bubble and foam like carbonated water for up to nine weeks. When the mixture quits bubbling, wait two days, then siphon the wine into glass bottles with screw caps, using plastic tubing. The wine will keep for years, if you can wait that long.”
I skipped the step of putting into empty water jugs and left it in the 5-gallon bucket. I made two batches – one was with marginal muscadines, and I didn’t add enough sugar. Now it’s vinegar. The other batch, however, turned out great, although I think I accidentally made the world’s strongest muscadine wine. It wasn’t fermenting well, so I “kicked it” and added more sugar and another package of yeast. The resulting concoction is a double-fermented, high-test wine that’s probably approaching 25%-30% ABV. I haven’t overindulged in it (yet), but it tastes like a horrible hangover waiting to happen. The bouquet is as follows: It smacks you in the face with a wallop of intense muscadine flavor followed by a wall of cane sugar, finishing with a pure alcohol burn. There are notes of pure muscadine (obviously), oak, citrus, grape Jolly Rancher, ethanol, and a hint of vinegar. The overall experience is jarring, but not at all unpleasant. I dare California to do better.
In addition to all of their other wonderful qualities, muscadines are arguably a superfood. Research has shown their potential to prevent and treat various cancers, regulate blood sugar, and much more. From Muscadines.com:
“Research in recent years has revealed that muscadines are packed with powerful phytochemicals that may be beneficial to your health. Muscadine seeds and skins contain potent antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are known to help combat free radicals, neutralizing and protecting cells from oxidative damage. Polyphenols in muscadine skins help support a healthy immune system, promote healthy skin, and provide digestive support. Muscadine seeds may support healthy cardiovascular function, help maintain healthy blood lipid levels already within a normal range, as well as support memory and brain health. The synergistic effects of muscadine skins and seeds when it comes to metabolic health include helping maintain healthy blood sugar levels already within a normal range, helping maintain a healthy weight, supporting the slowed absorption of dietary fat, and supporting healthy digestion.”
I highly recommend checking out their page, they’ve got links to over a dozen published studies extolling the health benefits of muscadines. It’s fascinating stuff. You can check it out here: http://www.muscadines.com/muscadine-research.html
So the moral of the story is, drink the wine. It just might save your life. Muscadine leaves have powerful antioxidant qualities as well, and are great for a tea. They’re also edible in a pinch. Like tea made from many other plants with high natural tannin content, muscadine tea can help reduce fevers, clear coughs, and relieve pain from colds, bronchitis, or pneumonia. Likewise, a poultice of the leaves can help with cuts, scrapes, and burns, reducing inflammation and preventing infection.
Aside from its edible and medicinal uses, muscadines have several other great qualities for wilderness survival and bushcraft. The first is obviously as a ready-made cordage. Green, flexible muscadine vines are incredibly strong (just try breaking one), and fairly easy to work with for knots and lashings. The vines are ideal for constructing shelters – if you harvest them green, they’ll shrink and tighten as they dry, making your shelter even stronger over time. Another great use for them, which you may remember if you follow Instructor Corps Pro Tips, is as a way to obtain water. In certain areas (rarely in GA, but it happens) you might be a good ways away from a creek or stream, or it might be a time of drought and sources may be dried up. Vines in general, but especially grape vines, have a powerhouse of a vascular system, as their stem may only be an inch or two in diameter but has to pump water and nutrients a hundred feet or more into the treetops. Cut one in two (especially in spring) and you'll see for yourself. This muscadine vine pictured was dripping almost fast enough to be a steady flow. It would fill a canteen or quart Nalgene in minutes. The harvested water is packed with nutrients and even has a mild, pleasant flavor. Always get a positive ID on the vine (as this is often done when it hasn’t leafed out yet), and don't do this unless you need to, since you're killing all growth above that point. This also doesn't work if the vine is dormant, it has to be active and vascular. Spring is peak, but this technique will work to some degree all summer.
So get out there and get acquainted with muscadines, if you haven’t already. They’re a great plant to get to know, and can be a lifelong friend. They’re delicious, but there’s so much more to them than just jelly or wine. They can provide food, water, shelter, and medicine, which makes them a true wilderness survival multitasker. They’re in peak season right now, so go get em’ while the getting’s good.
Have any other great uses for muscadines? Did we miss anything? What’s your favorite muscadine memory? Tell us in the comments!