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September 21, 2018

When we think of grapes, we usually think of varieties imported from European countries.  But North America also has its own native grapes. They grew wild long before Europeans settled these shores. In fact, some have speculated that the reason the first Norse explorers called North America Vineland was that the Vikings discovered these grapes. That is doubtful since their visit seems to have been limited to what is now Newfoundland. These North American grapes are indigenous to the South.

Early colonists were amazed by the abundance of grapes growing on the East Coast. Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, when exploring the Carolinas for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, described the American landscape as, “so full of grapes that in all the world the like abundance is not to be found.”

The grapes that these men discovered were Muscadine Scuppernongs. Wine made from them was sent as a gift to Queen Elizabeth I. Later colonists were required to cultivate native grapes. The fruit was used to make jelly, jam, juice, and wine.

I remember picking scuppernongs as a boy from a vine in my grandparents’ backyard. On a trip to the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Mammy dug up the plant from her childhood home. Pappy built an arbor using rough heart pine lumber. I recall plucking the fruit right off the vine with my Uncle Wesley. Eleven years older than I, Uncle Wesley taught me to suck the sweet pulp from the large grapes and spit out the husk and the seeds. There was a drawback. Yellowjackets swarmed around the fruit that hung from the vines as well as the scuppernongs that had fallen to the ground. The stinging insects were attracted to the sweetness much as we were.

In 1980, when Clare and I moved into the house built by my grandfather in 1937, we inherited the enormous scuppernong vine. The old arbor still supported the plant. The main vine was nearly three feet in circumference. Branches, pruned many times over the years, stretched to more than ten feet over the arbor and draped to the ground. In the fall, the vine was covered with delicious wild grapes as it had been in my youth. Some in the family called it a muscadine; others a scuppernong. Some neighbors mixed the two words calling the grapes scuffadines. It was, in fact, a scuppernong, a true native Carolina plant.

Before Clare and I added fencing to our property, we often saw total strangers standing beneath the vine, buckets in hand, gathering the sweet wild grapes. Our attitude was that there was more than enough of the fruit for everybody to share.

Last Saturday morning, I stopped by Bellew’s Market. On a table, near the back of the store, I saw the most luscious Southern grapes I had seen in a long time. The plump bronze scuppernongs and glistening black muscadines were grown locally. The fruit is primarily for home use, though there are many small farmers who produce the grapes commercially.

When early European explorers landed on the Atlantic coast the bronze or purple-black fruit was growing profusely throughout what is now the southeastern United States. The name scuppernong is from the Algonquian word ascopo meaning sweet tree. The Native Americans of the southeast enjoyed the grapes long before Europeans entered this land. The Scuppernong River in Eastern North Carolina is named for the vines growing along its banks.

Florentine explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano first mentioned a white grape in an entry written in a logbook while his party explored the Cape Fear River Valley in 1524. He wrote about the “many vines growing naturally there.”  In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh described these wild grapes as being “on the sand and on the green soil, on the hills as on the plains, as well as on every little shrub … also climbing towards the tops of tall cedars.”

In 1585, Governor Ralph Lane, when describing North Carolina to Sir Walter Raleigh, stated that “We have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven, so abounding with sweet trees that bring rich and pleasant grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain, nor Italy hath no greater…”.

Scuppernongs were first cultivated during the 17th century, particularly in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. The oldest grapevine in the world is a 400-year-old scuppernong growing on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.  Known as the Mother Vine, it is growing in the backyard of a private home.

The scuppernong is the state fruit of North Carolina. It is mentioned in the North Carolina official state toast.

Here’s to the land of the cotton bloom white,

Where the scuppernong perfumes the breeze at night,

Where the soft southern moss and jessamine mate,

‘Neath the murmuring pines of the Old North State!

What is the difference between a muscadine and a scuppernong? Many people consider any bronze muscadine to be a scuppernong, but that is not true.  All scuppernongs are muscadines, but not all muscadines are scuppernongs. The muscadine is a broad category of grape that includes many varieties of both bronze and black fruit. The scuppernong is a large variety of muscadine. It is usually a greenish or bronze color.

Both bronze and dark varieties mature in late summer and early fall. They have worked their way into the culinary repertoire of the South in the form of jams, jellies, fruit butter, pies, juice, and especially wine. I found a recipe for Kirk’s muscadine wine on the internet. Good name but a different Kirk. I am unable to vouch for his wine.

For the last several Christmases we have received a jar of homemade scuppernong jelly from good friends. Our grandchildren make short work of the delicious treat.

Muscadines contain significant amounts of resveratrol, the same compound found in red and white wines so often touted as an agent for lowering cholesterol levels and the risk of coronary heart disease.

Relatively drought tolerant, the muscadine grows best in areas where temperatures don’t drop below zero degrees.

Three winters after we moved to Spartanburg a sudden freeze plummeted temperatures to ten degrees below zero in the Upstate. Sap was still in the trunk of our elderly scuppernong. The sap froze, splitting the trunk into pieces.

Though the original vine planted by my grandmother is gone, many offspring have survived. Last week I found a few of the large grapes dangling from a vine clinging to a fence. I plucked the fruit and washed it with the garden hose. I crushed the grape in my mouth, savoring the pulp and spitting out the husk and the seeds. I enjoyed the same sweet taste I remember so well from my childhood.

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