One of the easiest, and according to my girlfriend, most enjoyable, wild edibles to harvest is grapes! Vitus Riparia is growing wild all around us. And once you start looking for it, you’ll start to see it everywhere. I have harvested wild grapes all the way up in the northern Minnesota woods, along the Mississippi river cooridor, and in southern Minnesota farm valleys.
Wild grape is a super interesting, and wide spread vine, I recommend checking out the Wikipedia article on it (here) for an introduction, or deeper diving through some Google searches. The leaf is the most recognizable part of the plant. It grows in a creeping vine, that can reach to the tops of the tallest trees around which it is growing. Clusters of tiny, dark purple versions of store bought grapes are what brought my attention to it in the fall three years ago. I highly recommend getting out into the woods to find some.
Grapevines can be found through out the year. Piles of brown, intertwining vines along river corridors in the early spring are a good hint that grapes will be growing in that spot. Check back in June to see if those vines are sporting large, five lobed, pointed, serated green leaves. And in August you should be seeing the beginings of clusters of small, purple grapes, interspersed with unripened green grapes.
I collect them in whatever is handy. But if I’ve identified a large patch of grapes, I’ll bring down a five gallon pale and fill it up. A five gallon bucket is, coincidentally, the exact right amount to make a batch of wild grape wine. (Which I will discuss in another post)
Plucking the grapes can be done by hand with a quick twist and yank. Try to separate the cluster of fruit at the node of its stem, where it meets the main body of the vine. Beware look alike vines, Canada Moonseed and Virginia Creeper. Moonseed has a noticeably red stem on its clusters of fruit, and the berries will not bear the bloom (a white powdery looking appearance to the fruit that can be scraped off with a nail) that grapes do. While Virginia Creeper has a significantly different appearing leaf, but may grow in clustered groups with grape vines. As always, err on the side of caution. If you’re not sure what your picking, don’t eat it!
As I’m picking grapes I make sure to taste a few along the way, checking for ripeness and sweetness, if they don’t tast good, leave on the vine to ripen for a week or two, or even a couple of months. I’ve picked grapes from the same spot that tasted delicious in August one year, but weren’t ripe and ready to pick till October the next year. Grapes vary wildly (pun intended) from year to year based on the amount of sun, heat and rain that they get. In general, a hot, wet summer should lead to earlier ripening grapes, while a dry, cold summer will lead to grapes ripening later into the fall, in my experience.
When you’re lucky enough to find those big patches of ripe grapes ready for harvest, be sure to eat a few! That first bite and burst of wild juice into my mouth is always exciting and surprising. The Vitus Riparia is full of tanic acid, bright and tart, with a hint of honey sweetness on the end. Picked wild, it is not my favorite treat, but it is delicious. (Lauren would argue with me, she eats them by the handful while picking). It is the multitude of uses in the home kitchen that gets me chasing the grapes every fall!
The wild grapes we pick each year make wonderful jellys, jams, wine or fruit compote. All of which I will detail in future posts. So stay tuned for my super secret recipes on all things grapes!