Nature Bulletin No. 204-A October 30, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
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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Update: June 2012