The vines are hanging from branches like sausage on a smokehouse wall. Only now, with the “change” upon us, can you differentiate the serpentine structures from the trees they inhabit. Leaves of gold can be easily noticed along trails and backroads. Now is the time to inspect and shake a few vines to see if the purple or bronze specimens, bound tightly to the stem, will abscise and fall to a moist earth. Have you figured it out yet? Have you noticed what is so abundant? I bet many of you have, for now is the time that muscadines and scuppernongs are ripe for the fall harvest.
Muscadine and Scuppernong, (Vitis rotundifolia), is a grapevine species native to the southern United States. The two grapes are differentiated by color only. Deep purple to almost black indicates a muscadine. Bronze to green colored grapes are known as a scuppernong. Muscadines are known by the name muscadine while the scuppernong has numerous synonyms and can also be referred to as “sculpin,” “scupanon,” “scupnum,” and “scupadine.” Muscadines are green before ripening and then change color. So technically speaking, you can call any scuppernong grape a muscadine, but you can’t call a muscadine grape a scuppernong. I have heard there is a slight difference in taste with the muscadine being sweeter than the perceived, more tart, scuppernong. Truthfully, I have eaten bushels of the wild morsels and can’t tell the difference.
The name for the scuppernong comes from the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. It was first mentioned as a “white grape” by Florentine explorer Giovanni de Varrazzano while exploring the Cape Fear River Valley in 1524. Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorers wrote in 1584 that North Carolina’s coast was so full of grapes the beaches and sea overflowed with them and the “like abundance is not to be found.” In 1585, to reiterate what Sir Raleigh described, Governor Ralph Lane described to Raleigh that “We have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the scope of heaven, so abounding with sweet trees that bring rich and pleasant, grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain, nor [sic] Italy hath no greater…”. I’d say that accurately describes what I have noticed here as well. That’s a bunch of grapes!
The state fruit of North Carolina is the scuppernong. Possibly the oldest cultivated grapevine in the world is the 400-year-old “Mother Vine” growing on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. In music, Scuppernong, is a piece for piano in three movements by John Wesley Work III. I have listened to this work, and I must admit, I enjoy picking and eating the grapes much more. Hopefully, I won’t offend such pianists.
Both grapes have a thick skin which covers the sweet inner pulp. There is an acidic “bite” that you will notice when consuming the deep pigmented skin of these grapes known for their high content of polyphenols. Most people discard the “bittersweet” skin for the juicy pulp within. Consumer research indicates the thick skins of this fruit, rich in antioxidants, is a deterrent in retail acceptance. I suppose many prefer the table grapes so readily available at all grocers. You’re missing out though, if you don’t acquire a taste for this bounty from the vine. It’s even more satisfying if you search for the wild ones and harvest them yourself. Remember, much of the allure to enjoying wild fruits and berries is the experience itself.
Jams, jellies, and wine are the most popular end products for muscadines and scuppernongs. Again, part of the novelty is the process by which these treats are made. Some of my fondest fall memories are those when I would venture to some of my childhood haunts and collect squirrels, fish, and yes, muscadines. My mother always saved the silver tins that held sorghum molasses. Each fall I would find those special vines and fill my container. Mom would take my collection of grapes and begin the process of turning them into delicious jelly that our family and friends would enjoy over the winter. Dad would request a bucket as well, so back to the woods I would go. His agenda was quite different from mom’s.
He would mash the muscadines, seeds and all, and add to a glass container of sugar and water. He would then sprinkle with dry yeast and cover with cheesecloth. I remember him stirring and straining the mixture for several days and re-covering with the cloth. I can’t recall all the details, but I remember that he allowed his concoction to sit and ferment for weeks and weeks. With mom making jelly, and dad next to her creating his magic, it was quite crowded in the kitchen. I can’t describe the wonderful aroma that filled our home. In fact, even as I write, my salivary glands are quite active as I reflect on those wonderful times. The jelly was always available and enjoyed but I must admit, it was quite the treat when dad offered me just a sip of what he produced. I suppose it’s legal to produce your own wine, but I’m not completely sure. There is an abundance of recipes published, so I don’t guess too many people are concerned. I’m almost ready to try and carry on my dad’s tradition, but I must slow down some to tackle this endeavor. I can’t wait too long though, for the fruit is falling now.
Why don’t you take a ride through the country and search for vines to see what they hold? You may have to visit several sites, for some vines don’t produce very well. However, when you find that special one, voila, it could be loaded. Racoons, squirrels, and deer also enjoy this bounty from the vines above. Be careful while picking them off the ground, for cottonmouths are also moving this time of year. If you have a proven recipe for the “vino”, maybe you would share with me? Better yet, just a small tasting would be appreciated as well.
Fruits of fall are beginning to arrive. They won’t last long though, so become a “gatherer” before it’s time for us to become hunters. On second thought, the doves are already beginning to fill the freezer shelves at my home. Oh well, there’s nothing wrong with doing both this time of year. Let me know how your muscadine search goes, I would be quite interested in what you find. Until next time enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it better than we found it.