Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Wild Grapes
Nature Bulletin No. 204-A   October 30, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

WILD GRAPES
In the year 1000 AD, 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 kind 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.

In 1878, the grape phylloxers -- a queer plant louse which attacks the roots of grape vines -- appeared in France and, within a few years, almost completely destroyed millions of acres of vineyards. Since that catastrophe, grape-growing in Europe has been re-established as a result of grafting European vines onto hardy root stocks taken from American wild grapes or their cultivated 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. They are so variable and have so many overlapping characteristics that amateurs have trouble in naming individual vines correctly.

Wild grapes are high-climbing or trailing woody vines with shreddy 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 Grapes, the Frost Grape, the Sweet Winter Grape, the Northern Fox Grape, the Catbird Grape and the Riverbank Grape; the first two being most common.

Some wild grape vines grow quite large. One seen recently in the forest preserves is 8 inches in diameter and is estimated to be 80 years old. Childrenfind 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 through the winter, making a handy food supply for many birds and mammals, both large and small.

... Thy wild grape vine
That ust to climb the highest tree
To keep the ripest ones for me. "
-- James Whitcomb Riley


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