Odds are if you’ve taken a walk in the woods you’ve noticed twisted, shaggy vines dipping down from the tree canopy and anchored to the forest floor. As signs of spring appear, these vines will come to life, unfurling new tendrils and ravenously reaching for the sun.
Growing upwards of six inches in diameter and taking advantage of any available sunlight, these wild muscadine vines are sometimes seen as a nuisance. However, their fruits are anything but. Muscadine grapes are notable for their musky aroma and sweet taste, and are widely used to make jams, juice, nutraceutical products, and wine. While most folks tend to remove the leathery skins and large seeds before consuming the juicy fruit pulp, both are especially rich in polyphenolic antioxidants and confer numerous health benefits. Interestingly, most of the muscadine vines you see growing wild are male, meaning they only have flowers containing stamen and will never bear fruit. However, if you do happen across some ripe grapes, you’re in for a treat!
Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) is one of approximately 25 Vitis species native to North America. Although the cultivation of muscadine for the purpose of winemaking was first documented near St. Augustine, Florida in the 1500s, it was already widely consumed and used by Indigenous communities. One of the first known varieties of muscadine is the bronze-fruited “Scuppernong,” so named for the Scuppernong River of North Carolina where it was first described in the mid 1700s and now serves as the official state fruit. Before prohibition dealt a major blow to the muscadine wine industry (particularly in the more conservative southern states), Virginia Dare, a wine produced from scuppernong grapes, was considered to be the most popular wine in America.
Over a century’s worth of efforts have been underway to breed more novel and commercially viable varieties of muscadine. To date, over 100 cultivars (or plant variety produced by selective breeding) are catalogued; 30 of which have been released from the oldest and largest Muscadine breeding program operated by the University of Georgia. In fact, a new cultivar was released just last year; “RubyCrisp” is a hybrid grape bred to resemble a V. vinifera table grape with its deep crimson color, crisp flesh, and tender skin. Other modern muscadines include “fresh market cultivars” like “Southern Jewel” and “Supreme” (one of the largest muscadines) which also yield grapes with more palatable skins and firmer fruit. A different species of grape native to more northern regions of the United States, Vitis labrusca, is commonly known as the fox grape; a popular labrusca cultivar that you might have heard of is the Concord grape.
Unlike their European counterpart, Vitis vinifera, muscadine is an especially hardy and pest-resistant plant, requiring minimal use of insecticides or fungicides and rarely succumbing to diseases. For these reasons, muscadine is considered a “sustainable fruit crop” in the warm, humid climates of the southern United States and can be easily grown in a home garden.
Luckily, you don’t need a green thumb to enjoy fresh muscadines! Stop by the Athen’s Farmers Market around the late summer through early fall or visit a nearby vineyard. Outside of grape season there are still many varieties of muscadine wine, each with a distinct flavor profile, available at a local grocery store to pair with almost any palate or occasion. Some of my personal favorites are produced by the Duplin and San Sebastian Wineries.
Just remember, whether you’re sipping last season’s muscadine wine, savoring some locally grown cultivars, or even setting up a trellis in your own backyard, take a moment to admire the deeply rooted history of this unique and resilient grape.