Vintners and farmers take great care to cultivate grapes for eating and wine. However, there are variations of wild grapes that grow without any human help.
Wild grapes are interesting because they’re both invasive species and guardian angels for grape growers. They can overpower environments, but unlike other wild berries, they’re edible and used in several dishes.
Read on to learn how wild grapes grow and the impact they’ve had on the grapes we regularly consume.
Are Wild Grapes Weeds?
Wild grapes are considered weeds because of how aggressively they grow. They can easily take over a garden or forest.
Thanks to their sticky tendrils, they’re able to latch onto trees and bushes like parasites, overpowering them. They can grow as tall as fifty feet, depriving other plants of sunlight. And their roots grow into the ground as thick tangles that persist for years making it near impossible for crops to compete for soil nutrients.
It is not recommended to plant wild grapes in a garden because most likely, they will stifle any neighboring crops, either through blocking sunlight or smothering them entirely. They’re best left to experienced farmers who can religiously prune the grapes.
Because they had no farmers taking care of them, wild grapes had to learn how to survive on their own. That means they can grow in virtually any climate, an important distinction we’ll dig into later. They’re believed to have originated in the Northeast, but they can be found across North America.
They’re able to grow in forests, orchards, vineyards, along riverbanks, in valleys, and on mountains. They need sunlight to grow, but there are varieties of these grapes that have evolved to survive in shaded areas.
Wild grapes are commonly found in areas that were recently impacted by fires, floods, and other natural disasters that have decimated trees. The lack of trees enables the grapes to get maximum sunlight without any competition.
Wild Grape Characteristics
Across all variations, the shredded-looking bark is a constant of wild grapes. Bark colors can be gray, brown, or a reddish color. Their leaves are large, green, and tri-lobed. They usually have a heart shape to them. The plants all have fork-like tendrils that allow them to hook onto larger structures.
As for the grapes themselves, they look the same as cultivated grapes. They can be dark blue, almost black, while other varieties have a light green color. They have a round shape similar to a blueberry. The flowers that bloom are usually tiny and green.
Unlike cultivated grapes, which are self-pollinating, wild grapes need to be cross-pollinated. All wild grape plants have male and female buds, and they require insects to spread the seeds. Fortunately, these are a popular food for insects, birds, and wild animals, making it easy for the male and female plants to pollinate.
Don’t Confuse These Plants For Wild Grapes
Grapes that grow wild are safe for humans to eat. However, there are varieties of berry bushes that look very similar to wild grapes, but are toxic and even poisonous. The main ones to watch out for are Canadian moonseed, Virginia creeper, porcelain berry, and pokeweed.
They share the same fork-like tendrils and leaf shape as wild grapes, but their berries are toxic to humans. You can differentiate them by their leaf edges, which are serrated as opposed to the grapes’ smooth-edged leaf. They have one crescent-shaped seed per grape versus the multiple seeds in a wild grape.
Unlike wild grapes, they have a unique, five-leaf design. Their fruit stems are a bright pink whereas the grapes usually have green stems.
Their berries can be turquoise, purple, pink, and even white. Wild grapes are generally dark blue or black when ripe. Notably, their leaves have green and white splotches that the grapes do not.
These might be the most toxic to humans out of the four. Any part of the plant is harmful to people and animals. Their definitive feature is their vibrantly red stem, unmistakable to the eye. They also have long, oval leaves where wild grapes have heart-shaped lobes.
Are Wild Grapes Edible?
Wild grapes are edible, but that doesn’t mean they’ll taste good. Their skin and flesh have a bitter, sour taste. The best tasting grapes are the ones that have gotten the most direct sunlight.
Wild grapes are not recommended as a snack for kids, unless you find yourself starving in the middle of the woods. Kids have a sensitive palette that will not jive with the tart taste of a wild grape. Additionally, they’re seeded. If kids have only had exposure to seedless grapes, unexpected seeds could be a choking hazard.
They’re best to eat after a frost, when they’ve developed some sweetness. You can freeze wild grapes and then turn them into jelly and juice.
It’s not just the grape itself that’s edible. Dolma, or stuffed grape leaves, is a beloved dish in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern diets. Dolma is from the Turkish word dolmak meaning to be filled. Grape leaves can be stuffed with meat and rice, or vegan options like tofu.
In a way though, we’re all eating wild grapes. Because of their durability amid brutal climates, wild grapes were crossbred with table and wine grapes to make them more weather-resistant. Many of the grapes we eat and drink have wild grapes DNA in them.
Most Popular Varieties of Wild Grapes
Fox grapes originated in the Northeastern US. They were so abundant that when Vikings first came to North America, they named the region Vineland.
To survive in the harsh Northeastern climate, Fox grapes evolved to withstand the cold and the acidic soil. As a result, they have a more acidic taste. Fox grapes are a popular food for birds in the area, who’ve been known to pick bushes clean.
Fox grapes were hybridized with wine grapes to create new strains of grapes that could survive harsh temperatures and diseases. The Concord grape, found in Welch’s classic grape juice, is a descendant of the wild grape. As is the Frontenac grape, which can withstand minus thirty degree weather.
In the 1800s, European grapes imported to America were attacked by a pest that had stowed away on the ship. The entire crop was on the verge of decimation when farmers discovered the Summer grape, which was resistant to the pest. They cross-bred Summer grapes into their wine and table grapes, which enabled them to survive.
These can get as tall as thirty-five feet and can spread that far, too. They have wide leaves which still have the heart shape of wild grapes. Their dark blue, globe-shaped grapes can be harvested July-October. They are one of the few wild grapes with a sweet and juicy flesh.
Summer grapes are the parent of Norton grapes, which is the cornerstone grape of the Ozark wine industry.
These plants are known for the little hairs that grow across their sharp-edged leaves. The branches have a reddish color, and they produce round, black grapes. Each grape contains six seeds. Riverbank grapes evolved to thrive in shaded areas along bodies of water. They are less invasive than other wild grapes species.
Native American tribes used the juice from riverbank grapes to treat coughs. Today, they can be found in the north-central United States and Canada.
Wrapping up Wild Grapes
Wild grapes are considered an invasive species, but we’ve learned to cultivate their powers for good, cross-breeding them to keep table and wine grapes alive. Their grape is edible, but it’s at its most flavorful after freezing — it’s the grape leaf that’s the true culinary delight.
To learn more about grapes, read our other grapes blog posts about grape varieties, plus growing and care guides.