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Thursday, October 8, 2015
With summer having come and gone, many assume Mother Nature’s bounty has done the same. The blackcaps, mulberries and wild cherries that we enjoyed over the summer months are a thing of the past.

But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t find some berries now. The wild version of one of the most well-known and most-beloved berries – the grape – is now ripe for the picking on the Niagara Frontier.

Identifying the wild grape

Although they are smaller than their store-bought cousins, wild grapes 
have an intense flavor. (PHOTOS BY BOB CONFER / CONTRIBUTOR)
There are two dozen species of wild grapes in North America, many of which are difficult to tell from one another save for some nuances in leaf shape and the flavor of the fruit. For the sake of simplicity in this column, we will address them collectively as the wild grape.

All wild grape species have similar traits that allow for easy determination of whether it’s a grape or a Virginia creeper berry that you might be picking. You definitely do not want to confuse grapes with creeper berries, because the latter are poisonous. Creepers contain oxalic acid and will irritate the stomach and kidneys, making for some serious pain and temporary shutdown of those organs (Native Americans had used the berries as a cure for diarrhea). There have actually been a few deaths from over-consumption of Virginia creeper berries.

This five-leafed plant is a Virginia Creeper. Don't confuse its berries with 
wild grapes. 
The Virginia creeper is a vine that you will see climbing up larger trees, fences, and houses. Its berry is round and purplish, becoming ripe during September and October. The easiest way to identify a Virginia creeper is by its leaves: They have longish leaflets typically in groups of five.

The wild grapes are also vine plants and tend to grow on trees and shrubs. Their leaves are not in clusters like the creepers. Instead they have single leaves along their vines and these leaves are best compared to a maple leaf in appearance.  

Pick grapes now

Wild grapes ripen and are available for picking on the Niagara Frontier in September and October. They are much smaller than the grapes you would buy in a store and they are round in shape (while many store bought varieties are more egg-shaped). They will be dark red to a deep purple that is almost black in color.

If you’ve never tasted a wild grape, brace yourself. The flavor is intense and deeply sweet, so much so that it borders on sour. It’s quite unlike the more-subdued flavors of the green and purple cultivated varieties that have European roots. It’s closer to the grape flavors you might experience when you drink red wine. Some varieties of wild grapes are tastier than others, so dabble in a few of them to find the one you like.

Beyond just plucking and eating, wild grapes can be made into an excellent jelly (some folks suggest using slightly under-ripe berries) and many people swear by wild grape pies. You can also make a grape juice out of them and there are countless recipes for juices available on the internet, depending on how much work you want to put into brewing it (some recipes even suggest letting it sit in a cool, dark place for 10 weeks before drinking).

You can drink and eat more than the berries

Grape leaves. It's what's for dinner.
The wild grape is a fairly versatile plant when it comes to edibles. In the spring, you can tap the vine and drink the watery sap which has an acidic kick to it. In the later portion of the spring, you can nibble on the curly, light-green shoots that come off the vine while they are still tender. Although the shoots don’t look very inviting, they are actually tasty – they taste just like grapes.

You can also eat the leaves when they are young and tender (from May till the Fourth of July). My wife is of Lebanese descent and her family loves stuffed grape leaves, a food they brought from the Old Country. Her grandmother prepares them for most every family gathering. It’s a surprisingly good treat that you should give a try … the slightly acidic leaves give it a bite, a special flavor of its own.

Here’s the recipe for Grandma Kitty’s Lebanese grape leaves:

INGREDIENTS

  • ~50 Grape Leaves, rinsed
  • 1 lb uncooked ground beef
  • 1 cup uncooked rice
  • Cumin- 1 tsp
  • Allspice- 1 tsp
  • Mint (fresh is best) – 1 tsp, or about 10 leaves chopped if fresh 
  • Lemon juice- ¼ cu plus more for adding to water 
  • Tomato paste- ½ can, mixed with water 
  • Salt & Pepper to taste, or about ¾ tsp each 
  • ~3 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • 1 Potato (for lining saucepan)

Combine all ingredients except for potato. Do not cook beef or rice. Place just under 1 Tablespoon (more or less depending on size of leaf) of mixture towards one end of a leaf and roll tightly, tucking in the ends so that the mixture cannot fall out. Repeat until all of the leaves are used. Place sliced potatoes at the bottom of a large saucepan then layer the rolled grape leaves on top, stacking them in rows. Add water until it just reaches top layer of rolled leaves, and add a little lemon juice, salt and garlic cloves.

Cover and bring to a rapid boil, then cook for 45 minutes on low heat. Enjoy with hummus, plain yogurt or by themselves!

A deadly plant for our forests 

While the wild grape might be welcome to many, I am always on the warpath against them. It is a deadly plant as it will climb its way up and over young trees and its primary vine and numerous sub-vines will create a dome of leaves that will overtake the tree’s leaves in the quest for sunlight. Many a tree has withered away and died because of this.

Grape vines will spread like wildfire and take over nearby trees. It is not uncommon for some grape plants to live for more than a half century and the vine’s stalk to become so thick that a grown man’s hand cannot wrap around it. If as a kid, or even as an adult for that matter, you pretended you were Tarzan and swung on a vine in the forest, that vine you used was a grape.

If you value the trees in your yard, hedge, or woodlot, do them a favor and clip grape vines and tear them down whenever you can. The vines will start to grow back the following growing season unless you blast the vine with Round-Up immediately upon cutting it (so that the killing chemical agent travels into the plant’s circulatory system).

But, it’s a crapshoot. If you’d rather enjoy the flavor of wild grapes and stuffed grape leaves, let them grow to your heart’s content and take over a couple of trees that you don’t mind losing. It’s a plant that despite its drawbacks is yet another of the many bounties that Mother Nature has graced us with on the Niagara Frontier.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he kills grape vines despite his wife’s affinity for stuffed grape leaves. It hasn’t led to a night alone on the couch … yet. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at bobconfer@juno.com.



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