Meditations On Wild Grapes

As the Crow Flies

Story and image by Doug Pifer

I appreciate wild grapes.

In the spring an ancient wild grapevine was covered with pale green blossoms. It grew along the fence behind the house where we lived in Clarke County, Virginia. We always knew when it was in bloom by the heavy fragrance of its grape-scented, frothy flower clusters. We gathered multitudes of black mulberries from the tree it climbed upon, but that old vine never yielded a single grape. A similar venerable grapevine covers a white mulberry tree behind our barn in West Virginia. It yields neither blossoms nor grapes. 

Scent from the spring blossoms is but a foretaste of the heady perfume from wild grapes that permeates the woods from September to November. Henry David Thoreau, premier philosopher- naturalist-writer of Concord, Massachusetts, loved the scent of wild grapes. In 1858 he wrote: 

“I have paddled far down the stream, three or four miles below the town . . . when the whole river was scented with them. I love to bring some home if only to scent my chamber with them, for they are more admirable for their fragrance than their flavor. “

Our native grape species have descriptive common names. Biggest and sweetest are round-leafed grapes, also called muscadines or scuppernongs. I need a botanist’s help to identify fox, riverbank, summer, frost, sand, winter, possum, and frost grapes. Furthermore, they hybridize with 
each other.

We planted Concord grape vines on the fence when we moved here four years ago. This September they yielded sweet, fragrant fruit. Named for Thoreau’s beloved birthplace, Concord is the quintessential American juice and jelly grape, bred from native vines.

Unlike the wine and table grapes that come from Europe, Concord has been selectively bred in America from our wild fox grape, Vitis labrusca. This gives it fragrant musky overtones which Robert Beverley, in his History of Virginia, describes as “a rank taste when ripe, resembling the musk of a fox, from whence they are called fox grapes.” Viniculturists used to scorn our “foxy” American wines. But grafting the roots of native American grapevines to those of European wine grapes has enabled fine wine grapes to be grown throughout the northeastern USA, to the great benefit of our many 
local wineries.

When I drew this cluster of wild grapes in Morgan County, West Virginia, I was fascinated by the powdery “bloom” that coated every grape. It was easily rubbed off, revealing a fruit so dark as to be nearly black. Ever the wild grape enthusiast, Thoreau praised this bloom as:

“. . . a thin Elysian veil cast over it, through which it can be viewed. It is breathed upon it by the artist, and thereafter his work is not to be touched without injury. It is the handle by which the imagination grasps it.”

He continues, “Is not the bloom on fruits equivalent to that blue veil of air which distance gives to many objects, as to mountains in the horizon? The very mountains, blue and purple as they are, have a bloom on them.”

The sage of Concord, Thoreau was also the poet laureate of the wild grape.