Wild grapes are the most plentiful free fruit in North America. Their vines grow prolifically in most of the United States except for the southwest and extreme southeast. The strange thing is that they are mostly unnoticed until they become a problem – for example when they are about to strangle and pull down your favorite tree or they’ve grown through and into your fence, damaging it beyond repair. Or when they’ve covered an entire woodlot, stealing light and nutrients from the trees that were going to provide for your retirement.
Before we get into how to control wild grapes though, let’s talk about their edibility. The shoots and vine tips, leaves, and fruit are all edible for humans. In addition, they provide food for songbirds, game birds and small mammals.
Shoots and vine tips are gathered in spring, simply by cutting them from the vine. They can be eaten raw in salads, steamed as a cooked vegetable or pickled.
Leaves can be gathered anytime, although they are most tender in spring. They can be steamed for a few minutes and then sauteed in hot butter, or stuffed with other foods and then baked or steamed. They can also be fermented for year-round use.
Wild grape fruits ripen in fall and can be eaten raw, or juiced to make jelly, pie, fruit leather or wine. They can also be dehydrated in the sun, an electric dehydrator, or an oven set to the lowest heat to become raisins. Any grapes that are not going to be processed immediately can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or so.
Wild grapes should be juiced gently, by crushing them and straining them through a cloth jelly bag rather than putting them through a mechanical juicer. You want to avoid crushing the seeds, which will release a bitter taste. When using wild grapes to make juice, jelly or wine, after the juice is made, let it sit for a day or two in the refrigerator to let the tartrate settle to the bottom of the container. This is a bitter grayish sludge of crystals that will precipitate out of the juice. After a couple days, pour off the good juice to use however you please. If you skip this step, you will have wasted your efforts and you won’t be pleased with the result.
IDENTIFYING WILD GRAPES
Wild grapes grow on climbing, woody vines with shreddy bark. They attach to trees, fences and other structures with curling tendrils. Dark green heart-shaped leaves are deeply lobed and toothed and are 3-6” wide and 2-9” in length. The undersides of the leaves are silvery green with prominent veins. Spring flowers bloom in creamy white clusters and are very fragrant even from several yards away. The grapes themselves are much smaller than cultivated grape varieties, being only 1/8 – 1” in diameter depending on growing conditions. Each grape contains 2-4 seeds. As with any edible wild food, be absolutely certain you have identified it correctly before consuming.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Wild grape vines can grow to 45 feet or more in length, with vines the diameter of an adult’s thigh. As you can imagine, that’s a lot of weight, and when they grow over neighboring trees or shrubs, they can easily take them down, especially when combined with the weight of ice or snow in winter. In addition, the grapevine’s leaves block light from reaching its host’s leaves, slowing the growth of or killing the host.
Wild grapes are spread easily by birds and mammals that eat the grapes and then poop out the seeds. The seeds can lay dormant in the soil for many years just waiting for the right conditions to sprout. New vines also sprout from the roots of cut vines and from horizontal roots that spread from the main stem in every direction just above or below the soil.
I recommend the use of herbicides only in the direst of circumstances. Control of wild grape vines would be one of those. Mechanical control is possible in some situations if you are extremely persistent and you can access the main stems of the vine amidst the tangles. What you would do is cut the stems and then smother them with a very thick mulch to prevent light from reaching them for at least three years. You’d also have to dig out the entire root system or smother it as well.
For chemical control, fall is the best time as the plant’s energy is moving toward its roots and the poison will move downward, killing the roots. Second best is winter. Cut the stems as close to the ground as possible and immediately paint the cut stem with glyphosate or triclopyr, being careful to avoid getting the herbicide on anything but the cut stem, because these two will kill everything they touch.
To reduce the weight of the vines on the tree, reach up as high as you can and cut down the vines. Don’t try to pull them out of a tree or shrub as the pulling will likely damage the very plant you are trying to save. The hanging dead vines will eventually dry out and decompose.
Neither mechanical nor chemical control will kill the parts of the vine that sprout from where root runners have anchored themselves to the ground. You will need to pull the runners up, smother them, or cut them and paint the cuts with herbicide.
All control methods take persistence and repeated re-checking for several years.
PICKLED GRAPEVINE SHOOTS
Pack fresh shoots and 1 t. pickling spice in canning jars. Fill jars with boiling vinegar and seal. Store for six weeks before eating.
WILD GRAPE JELLY
Yields about 5 cups
3 lbs. wild grapes, stemmed
3 c. water
4 ½ c. sugar
1 3 oz. package liquid pectin
Crush grapes gently in a large saucepan with a potato masher. Add water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Transfer to a jelly bag or a colander lined with a double thickness of cheesecloth. Let drip overnight. Place juice in heavy saucepan; stir in sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Stir in pectin. Return to a full boil and boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam from top with a metal spoon. Ladle into sterilized jars leaving 1/8-inch head space. Cover and seal jars with metal rings.
STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES
There are hundreds of recipes for stuffed grape leaves and many ways to cook them including steaming, pressure canning, stove-top cooking and baking in the oven. Most all agree though, that the stems should be removed, leaves should be placed face-down, the stuffing added near the bottom of the leaf, both sides folded toward the center and rolled from the bottom up. Place seam-side down in whatever vessel you are using for cooking. Snug the rolled leaf packages next to each other to prevent them from opening. If using fresh grape leaves, dipping them in very hot water for 10 seconds before stuffing them will tenderize the leaves and make the job easier. Here is just one recipe – you can search the internet for others, get one from your Greek grandma, or experiment on your own.
2 c. uncooked long-grain white rice
1 large onion, chopped
½ c. fresh dill
½ c. chopped fresh mint leaves
2 quarts chicken broth, divided
¾ c. fresh lemon juice, divided
60 grape leaves, rinsed and drained
1 c. olive oil
Hot water as needed
Saute the rice, onion, dill and mint for 5 minutes in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1 quart chicken broth. Reduce heat to low and simmer 10-15 minutes until rice is almost cooked. Stir in half the lemon juice. Remove from heat. Lay leaves shiny side down. Place one teaspoon of the rice mixture at the bottom (stem end) of each leaf. Fold both sides toward the center and roll from the bottom to the top. Place in a 4-quart pot seam side down. Snug the rolled leaves in the pot to prevent them from opening while cooking. Add the remaining lemon juice and chicken broth and the olive oil. Cover pot and simmer 1 hour. Do not allow it to boil or the stuffing will burst from the leaves. Remove from heat and let cool, uncovered for ½ hour before serving.