Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
Growing up in a rural area like Wakulla gives kids the opportunity to explore nature and learn its many benefits. Wild grapes may be one of the sweetest benefits of living in the county!
Muscadine grapes are a local delicacy enjoyed during the summer. Longtime residents may remember making jams or jellies from these delicious grapes, but eating them right off the vine is a delicious treat to beat the heat.
Sometimes called scuppernongs, muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia) are in the same genus with more widely known grape species such as the wine and table grapes grown in California and Europe.
Wine and table grape species have been widely grown and cultivated for thousands of years. Despite their long history of breeding and refinement above their wild ancestors, these popular grapes will not grow in Wakulla County for very long. Xylella fastidiosa, a bacteria also known as Pierce’s Disease, is prevalent in the hot, humid environment and kills all but the native grape species.
Muscadines, being exclusive to the “New World,” have a much shorter history of formal cultivation and selective breeding. Almost any wild and untended area may have muscadine grapes hanging on the vines in mid- to late summer.
Almost anyone working out of doors now will gladly take a break to sample the sweet and juicy fruit. In most cases, the fruit must be dislodged from the vines which grow in tree tops.
While there are now more than 300 identified muscadine cultivars, they have not achieved the popularity of bunch grapes found in grocery stores. The thick, leathery skins require the consumer to squeeze the grape so the contents slip out to be eaten.
The so-called slip-skinned grapes are a Southeastern specialty but are considered an acquired taste by many of the uninitiated who are not accustomed to this natural treat. The wild muscadines and some named cultivars also have seeds.
In the days before supermarkets and national brands, muscadines were the basis for many homemade specialties. Jellies, juices, candies and wine were all based on this wild grape which was gathered from vines growing in a tree or on a fence.
Unlike some of the named cultivars, the wild muscadines require cross pollinators, or a male and female vine for successful fruit production. The grapes range in color from bronze to black with sizes up to the diameter of a half dollar.
Wildlife also enjoy this fruit of the vine. A variety of birds and tree climbing mammals utilize the fruit while still on the vine 50 feet or more above the forest floor.
After the super-ripe fruit drops, raccoons, opossums, skunks and others will dine on the grapes. Ants, flies and beetles will finish any leftovers. Much like the human residents, they enjoy a sweet refreshing break from the heat and humidity.
To learn more about muscadines, Wakulla County’s native grape species, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/