Bayou-Diversity (18 August 2018) Grapes are woody vines that climb with tendrils in search of sunlight. About twenty species of native grapes are found in the eastern United States in a variety of habitats. The well-known fruits of grapes have been consumed by humans for thousands of years in some form. The famous early naturalist William Bartram described Native Americans’ use of grapes near Mobile in 1773. He wrote, “The Indians gather great quantities of them, which they prepare for keeping, by first sweating them on hurdles over a gentle fire, and afterwards drying them on their bunches in the sun and air, and store them up for provision.” In the Civil War, grapes were among the most common wild flora mentioned as food by Confederate soldiers. 19th century newspapers across the state often referred to them. A Lake Charles paper wrote in 1883, “Muscadines are ripe, and the small boy is made happy thereby.” In 1888, the Colfax newspaper reported that, “Grapes and muscadines by the million load the vines of the woods in this region.”
Grapes are also important wildlife foods. Fifty-seven species of songbirds have been reported to eat wild grapes as well as bear, coyote, fox, rabbit, raccoon, opossum, skunk, squirrel, deer and catfish. One of the most common species in Louisiana is muscadine. Dozens of cultivars of this grape have been developed in recent years and are popular for their large size and taste in wine and jellies. Scuppernongs are a variety of muscadine that have bronze-colored fruits when ripe. In addition to muscadines, at least seven other species of wild grapes are found in Louisiana with names such as summer grape, mustang grape, and riverbank grape. Some kinds only grow on dry, upland sites; others are found in wetlands overhanging bayous and rivers. Modern research indicates that polyphenols and other nutrients in grapes may have health benefits. I’m now conducting a long-term experiment to test this hypothesis with muscadine jelly and cathead biscuits.