Muscadine Grape: big history and tiny hidy-holes

01 Jan

Vitis rotundifolia



vitis rotundifolia fruits

Muscadine Grapes (by John Bradford)

John and George savored the kind of weather today, the first day of 2016, that migrates snowbirds.   A slice of heaven complete with trapdoor spiders, antlions, dragonflies, and delicate white mushrooms in a dry sand pine woods near Hobe Sound, Florida.


vitis with dragonfly

uscadine with Dragonfly (JB)

One of my running themes in botany is that a trip to the local state park reveals more fascination than an eco-tourism trip to Shangri-La with a khaki-clad guru pointing out some exotic orchid.   The very thing that makes nature so much fun is its universal accessibility. So today’s state park marvel is Muscadine Grape.   Everybody sees it, or trips over it, one of the most abundant lianas everywhere you go.   It has heart-shaped leaves with big marginal teeth.

Vitis rotundifolia

(By JB)

Muscadine has odd features, even compared with other grapes.   Most grapes have 38 chromosomes, but Muscadine and a few others have 40, making it tough to hybridize.  It does not graft well with other grapes, although you can graft Muscadines onto one another.

The flowers are usually male and female on separate plants.   And the stems are a little weird, because, although they climb by tendrils (little clingy fingers), they also can sprout roots.   The roots either remain small until the stem contacts the ground, or alternatively much later, the roots dangle like cables from the woody stems high in the tree canopy.

Vitis roots

In most grapes the tendrils are forked,  contrasting with the unbranched tendrils in Muscadine.

Vitis rotundifolia flower


A hand goes up in the back of the room:

“Do they use Muscadine for wine?”   You bet your sweet bippy. It is the oldest cultivated grape in North America, which is easy to assert because Native Americans had the pleasure before Europeans got the knack (see below). Today there are hundreds of cultivars, including the Scuppernong Grapes, originating in North Carolina.

A jumbo Scuppernong vine on Roanoke Island is one of the most intriguing individual plants in all the U.S.   The exact history is unknown, with different versions in different references, but here are the broad facts. The “Mothervine” appears in account(s) by original settlers on the Outer Banks in the 1500s, with Revolutionary War soldiers chiming in on it 200 years later.  Fast-forward two more centuries.  The beast remains alive, well tended, and big despite an accidental brush with road-clearing herbicide. The trunk cluster is multiple feet in diameter, and the leafy bits supported by trellises covered 2 acres before some trimming.

The Mothervine probably is the horticultural work of Native Americans. Were Native Americans in eastern North America wine snobs? Reportedly so, to a limited degree. Did they fancy sun-dried grapes? Actually yes, according to a British sea captain in 1565. It’s only raisin-able after all.

Vitis rotundifolia babies

Simple tendril (JB)

Muscadine and other grapes have a secret. Flip over the leaf and look closely where the petiole joins the blade to spot tiny caves with the doors surrounded by shaggy teeth.   These “domatia” are homes to mites lurking like the Once-ler in their tiny lerkims.

Vitis domatia4

The domatia look like caves (microscope picture)

So, why you ask, would a plant bother to host mites? They’re good predatory mites, it seems, interpretably guarding the plant from bad leaf-munching mites as well as from fungi.


vitis domatia AI

Have a Mitey Fine New Year


Posted by on January 1, 2016 in Muscadine Grape, Uncategorized


Tags: ,

12 responses to “Muscadine Grape: big history and tiny hidy-holes

  1. theshrubqueen

    January 2, 2016 at 8:08 am

    I am blessed with an abundance of male muscadines and decided to learn about making baskets. Instructions include boiling the vines to get rid of the mites, otherwise they eat the basket.
    My grandfather (the peach farmer) grew Scuppernongs for eating and made wine. Syrupy sweet.

    • George Rogers

      January 2, 2016 at 10:06 am

      Should have asked you before this one. You have any grape vine baskets? I bring in the woody stems in connection with my plant physiology class (because they seem to transpire water very rapidly), and have repeatedly noticed how supple and strong they remain as I clean up a few days later. Watched a video yesterday about wine made from the offspring of the Mothervine, and a person tasting it commented on the sweetness. We should try an experiment—boiled vs. unboiled basket.

      As a complete bozo, I’ve known you for quite some time but never realized you have a blog. Found it yesterday in an odd way, so now am a loyal follower!

      • theshrubqueen

        January 2, 2016 at 1:00 pm

        My skills run more to grapevine wreath making and I do have some – definitely can try the boiled vs. unboiled concept! I will send some your way if you would like.
        Muscadine or Scuppernong wine is made commercially in North Georgia, there is a winery at Currahee that makes Scuppernong/Blueberry which must be positively vile (I like drier wines) My father liked Chateau Elan Muscadine Wine (made in Braselton, GA) I am not sure it is sold around here, but it was too sweet for me.

      • George Rogers

        January 2, 2016 at 1:09 pm

        Thanks Amelia. Can’t say I’ve tried Scuppernong wine, but intend to, especially with your good tips. I get up in that general area occasionally.

  2. Laure Hristov

    January 2, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Mitey fine article! Happy New Year!

    • George Rogers

      January 2, 2016 at 10:08 am

      Hey Laure, Hope you don’t get any cooties in 2016. Happy New Year to You…seeya on Facebook and hopefully in person.

  3. Suellen Granberry-Hager

    January 2, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    I’ve never had scuppernong wine, but there was a scuppernong vine on an arbor at my grandfather’s house in southeast Alabama. The grapes were cloyingly sweet and the skins were inedible, but my cousins would go out there so they could gossip out of earshot of their parents. Brings back memories.

    • George Rogers

      January 2, 2016 at 9:43 pm

      Hi Suellen, Well I see we better get some Scuppernong grapes for the PBSC plant nursery. Maybe a tissue culture project. Then we could a have a designated gossiping and smoking arbor.

  4. leonorealaniz

    January 2, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    Is this grape in some way related to the Concord Grape? Its abundant here in MA. I made marmelade with it, seedless, pressing the pulp through “cranky” sieve. Tastes VERY good. Thank you for this article, as always amusing and so informative.

  5. George Rogers

    January 2, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    Hey Leonore, Love those Concord grapes! Guess they must grow at Concord. They have a unique flavor don’t they? They are related, although Muscadine, in terms of usage, is thought of as a southern grape. Thanks for contributing!

  6. Steve

    January 4, 2016 at 8:19 am

    I never knew about the mite caves. Cant’ wait to check them out next time I am botanizing! Love saying the word scuppernong too. Happy New Year George and John!

    • George Rogers

      January 4, 2016 at 12:58 pm

      Hi Steve, You ever have words you write and read but never say…including some plant names? Glad I don’t have to say “scuppernong” out loud. With the formation of mental “rust” since the last go-round of sorting out some headache genera such as Dichanthelium, Rhynchospora, yellow composites …you know the list, I wish you were up here to scrape off the rust. But then again, some days I get my own children confused. Happy New Year to you too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: