By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Fall is a great time to gather the wild foods that grow abundantly here in the Ozarks. Black walnuts, hickory nuts, persimmons, mushrooms, rosehips and wild grapes are all native to the Ozarks and many of the Southern and Midwest states. Our latest foray resulted in a basket full of luscious wild grapes.
Missouri is home to 7 species of wild grapes belonging to the Vitis genera. All are climbing vines with sturdy, curling tendrils that help the plant cling to nearby vegetation in their search for higher heights. While wild grapevines can grow to be very large – scaling the tallest trees and producing thick, woody ‘trunks’ the size of baseball bats – many stay relatively low to the ground, sending out multitudes of “runners” that eventually climb young trees and shrubs.
Keep in mind that wild grapes do not bear the same big fleshy fruits like the ones in the grocery store or those grown in modern vineyards. The fruits of wild grapes are about the size of a large blueberry and have about the same amount of flesh inside, minus the seeds.
Of the seven species of wild grapes in the Ozarks, all are edible to one degree or another. The only wild grape species described as “inedible” is the Frost- or Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia), whose fruits are just too sour to eat. The most common wild grapes found in the Ozarks include Summer Grape (Vitis aestivalis), Sand- or River Grape (V. rupestris), Winter- or Possum Grape (V. cinerea) and Fox Grape (Vitis labrusca).
Keep in mind that while wild grapes are completely safe to eat (and downright good for you, too!), but as my friend, Sara Firman pointed out, wild foragers should take care not to confuse the edible fruits of wild grape with those of poisonous Canadian or Common Moonseed (Menispermum canadense), which is very similar in appearance to the wild Fox Grape.
Moonseed vines have fruits containing a single, flattened, crescent-shaped seed, bark that does not shred, no twining tendrils, smooth and lightly lobed to rounded leaves without tooth margins. Ripe fruits are purple-black and have a rank or unpleasant flavor.
Wild grapes have fruits with several small oval seeds, woody vines with mature bark that shreds, twining forked tendrils, most species have leaves with many deep lobes and noticeable tooth margins (except for the Fox Grape, which has leaves that closely resemble moonseed!) Ripe fruits are purple-black and have a sweet/tart flavor.
Aside from that, the only real challenge to picking wild grapes is finding fruiting vines you can reach without endangering yourself. Getting the grapes off the vine is a cinch if you have a pocket knife with you. If you don’t, simply pull the long thin stem connecting the grape cluster to the vine in the opposite direction of growth. They usually come off pretty easily this way.
Once you get your grapes home, you will want to clean them and cull out those that are dried up, spoiled, or otherwise spent. The grapes may also carry tiny beetles or other insects that have been feeding on the fruits. Rinsing easily removes them.
After a couple of tries, I found that stripping each cluster of grapes into a sink full of water was the easiest and most efficient way to clean wild grapes. The duds and debris float on top of the water, while the ripe, solid grapes sink to the bottom. Simply skim off the floaters, scoop out the sinkers, and give the fruits a final rinse in a colander.
With the fruit cleaned and sorted, there are endless ways to use wild grapes once you extract the seeds from the juice and the pulp. To do this, place the fruit in a large pot and add just enough water to cover the fruits and simmer for 15-30 minutes.
From this point you can drain off the liquids, which can be sweetened and/or diluted with water as desired to make a nice juice drink. Get more – and even better – juice by pressing the berries in a cheesecloth bag, squeezing out all the liquids from the pulp. This is good stuff for making jelly and it’s a super-antioxidant-all-around-good-for-you-juice!
You can also put the grapes in a ricer or similar device to separate seeds from pulp. The cleaned pulp and can be used alone, or mixed in with the juice. The pulp by itself is great for making wild grape jam, preserves, pies, cakes and other good stuff!
Oh, and did I mention that wild grape leaves are edible, too? They can be used to make dolmas (yummy stuff wrapped up in grape leaves and baked or stewed) and added to pickle brine to make pickles crisper.
If you have a recipe for wild grapes or grape leaves, please post it in our comments section or send it to us and we’ll post it for you!
Aside from all the good free eats and nourishing goodness found in nature, we have plenty of reason to maintain a healthy diversity of plants growing in our woods, along our streams, and at the edges of our fields and meadows. By improving plant diversity, we also improve wildlife diversity. And together, we create a healthier, more beautiful place in which to live.
© 2013 Jill Henderson – please feel free to share with a link back to this site.
Show Me Oz suggests these resources:
Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one. Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor. This is one journey you don’t want to miss.
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.