Can you smell them? Their scent on the breeze, so alluring, indicates the shift in season, heralding in fall.
I am clambering up an old spruce tree at a neighbor’s house, teetering on a wobbly branch, standing up on my tip toes, my arms reaching up into the vines. Fingertips like the tendrils I am grasping for, curling to hook the clusters of deep purple globes. I take another step up on Nature’s lattice work of spruce and grape. Somewhere in my brain there is an alarm going off, “Can this vine hold my weight? This could really hurt if I fall. Are these grapes really worth the effort?” I ignore the possibility of sour grapes. These smell so sweet. Surely they are worth the effort.
I stretch my arm out and up as far as humanly possible…AH got it! Into my bag another scenty treasure goes. Except for this one grape – YUM! Yes, totally worth the effort. I easily convince myself to sample one more. And then another, and wait, one more… My tongue is stained purple as my lips close around each final grape.
Finding wild grapes this time of year is the easy part. The two challenges are: reaching the grapes and finding ones that taste REALLY GOOD. Some wild grapes taste quite sour while others are incredible. You cannot predict by size or location. You’ve just got to sniff and sample.
Fox Grape, Vitis labrusca, and River Grape, Vitis riparia, (Vitaceaeare) our two New England varieties. To find grapes, search for woody, climbing vines. The dark brown bark of the vines can peel easily into strips. They are NOT hairy. If you see hairy vines, that is most likely to be poison ivy, so don’t touch. Grape leaves are simple, large, and tooth-lobed, possibly reminding you of maple leaves when they have 3 distinct lobes, but they can also be heart-shaped. They have long petioles that attach to the twigs. Forked tendrils are produced opposite the leaves and cling to most anything. And the vine continues to grow up, up, up into the treetops. Look for clusters of hanging fruit. Our wild grapes will turn from green to dark purple when ripe. Wild grapes contain an anti-oxidant called oligomeric procyanadins, plus B1, B2, B3, C, pro-vit A, and minerals – so yes, quite healthy to consume.
Two similar-looking vines that produce poisonous berries to watch out for are: the invasive Porcelainberry, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, also of Vitaceae or the grape family; and our native Moonseed, Menispermum canadense (Menispermaceae). Grapes contain 2-4 (usually 3) seeds which you can crunch and swallow whereas Moonseed’s purple-black berries contain 1 very bitter-tasting, crescent-shaped seed (or so I am told as I have never tasted Moonseed). The leaves of Moonseed are three-lobed but not toothed. Porcelainberry’s bark is dotted with lenticels and does not peel whereas grape bark lacks lenticels and does peel. Porcelainberry’s stem pith is white whereas grape is tan or brown (you have to cut the vine to see this). Additionally Porcelainberry’s fruit do not grow in tight clusters and can be green or bright blue. Just be sure to properly identify grape using a field guide and your eyes and you should be good to go. When in doubt pass it by.
Meanwhile, back up on that old spruce tree – eating those wild grapes – I am as happy as a lark, as a clam, as an otter in the water (only in a tree you see) as a woman in love with the Great Outdoors! Experiencing true, unfettered pleasure can really be this simple. Happy harvesting!
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, and wild edible enthusiast lives in Ashfield, MA.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News and Shelburne Falls & West County Independent. This article appears in the September, 2017 edition of the Shelburne Falls & West County Independent.
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