The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 8, 2004


Fox Grape

(photo by Susan Emmons)

In late September and early October the fragrance of wild grapes enhances our walks and signals that it is time to gather grapes for grape jelly. These local grapes are known as Fox Grape and are also called slip-skin grape, because the tough skins of the ripe grape slip off easily from the flesh of the grape — which is exactly how we eat them.

The hardy vines of Fox Grape, Vitis labrusca, grow in sunny edges of fields and woods and twine around shrubs and trees often to a height of 10 or 12 feet or higher to reach sunlight. Fox Grape grows wild from New England to Illinois and south to Georgia. It is a vigorous plant with few pests except the Japanese beetle which feasts on the leaves.

Description: The somewhat leathery leaves vary from slightly toothed to deeply lobed with the undersides densely rusty-pubescent (hairy). This gives the appearance of green on top and brown below. Opposite each leaf (or nearly each leaf) is a forked tendril or a flower/fruit cluster. The plant uses the forked tendrils to grab onto branches or bark of larger plants or onto itself.

Uses: Native Americans used grapes and their leaves for food and a wide variety of medicinal purposes. The vines were, and still are, used to make baskets. Few plants feed so many different animals. The grapes are an important source of food for many birds and wild mammals, including foxes, rabbits, raccoons and skunks. Deer eat the leaves and stems. Birds nest in the vines and also use the young vines for nest-building.

The early spring leaves are edible. Steamed grape leaves are commonly used in a variety of Middle Eastern recipes wrapped around a filling.

Status: In searching the Internet for information on grapes I found that the plant is "protected" in Kentucky, a "noxious weed" in Ohio and in the Northeast it is listed as an "invasive" native perennial and as "abundant" in the Concord area.

Word of the day: The inconspicuous flowers of the grape plant, which bloom in May to June, are described as forming a "panicle," which is a cluster of flowers with individual stems, attached along a main stem.

Cultivated grapes: The Fox Grape hybridizes easily and the cultivated species of Concord, Isabella and Catawba grapes are derived from this species.

Historical note: Around the year 1,000, when Vikings from Norway and Iceland made voyages to what is now the New England coast, they named the land "Vinland," for the profusion of wild grapes they found.

Gathering: Picking the grapes is easy if you have kids who can climb trees. We also use a long-handled pruning tool to bring the grapes within reach, or if you wait until most of the grapes are fully ripe, you can shake the vines and catch the grapes in a cloth. It is easy to find grapes in Carlisle; just follow the aroma.

References: Illustrated Flora of the Northern States by Britton and Brown; American Wildlife and Plants by Martin, Zim and Nelson; Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons and Concord Area Shrubs by Ray Angelo.

Grape Jelly

There are recipes for making grape jelly without adding pectin, but it is easier to use a purchased pectin such as Sure-Jell.

Take at least 3 pounds of grapes, remove stems and wash. Squash the grapes — a potato masher works well, doing one layer at a time. Follow the instructions that come with the pectin. This will include adding water to the squashed grapes and simmering for about 10 minutes. Pour this mixture through a jelly bag and let drip several hours or overnight. Then add pectin and sugar per instructions, boil and pour in sterilized jars and seal. Five cups of juice may need seven cups of sugar! Freezer jellies need less.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito