Snowshoeing around our woods recently, I was struck by how many wild grape vines are clambering up into the tree tops. Last summer’s abundant rain must have let them put on a lot of growth. Riverbank grape, Vitis riparia, is a native wild perennial vine that grows in much of the northern U.S. and southern Canadian provinces from Manitoba east. Where I grew up in northeastern Ohio, wild grape vines grow profusely up into the canopy of the large hardwood trees. I remember climbing thick networks of grape vines high up into the trees and taking naps in grape hammocks. Wild grape is so abundant there that the state of Ohio has declared it a noxious weed. Around here, riverbank grape vines climb trees and shrubs attached by their strong tendrils. Wild grapes weigh their hosts down with a thick cover of leaves, often cutting off light and killing young trees. In winter, the tangle of grape vines can catch lots of snow and ice, weighing down branches and dragging down whole trees. Wild grape vines can drag down enough trees to create openings in the forest, creating their own light-filled space to grow. There are a few places like that in our woods. I have seen some large ‘wild grape arenas’ in the lower Kinnickinnic River valley, along the Mississippi River and in other Pierce County forests. Riverbank grapes bear clusters of purple fruit in the fall with a characteristic whitish bloom. Birds, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, turkeys, grouse and pheasants eat most of the fruit before winter. The purple fruit can be harvested for making juice, jelly and wine. It takes a lot of wild grapes to make these products because each grape has two to six egg-shaped seeds that are flattened on one side. Some people say wild grapes have a wild ‘foxy’ flavor. I find them delicious but seedy. People foraging for wild grapes should beware of the similar-looking Canada moonseed, Menispermum canadense. The fruits of moonseed are poisonous. This native vine has unlobed or slightly lobed leaves with entire edges. Wild grape leaves are variable in shape, sharply lobed with jagged leaf edges. Moonseed has bluish fruits but with only a single crescent-shaped seed in each fruit. Wild grapes are winter hardy. Some of the wild grape plants in our woods have stems several inches thick, indicating that they have survived here many years. The European grapes (Vitis vinifera) that we prize for eating and for making wine aren’t winter hardy and are vulnerable to North American diseases and soil pests. One of the pioneers who renewed interest in grape growing in the upper Midwest was the late Elmer Swenson of Osceola, Wisc. He crossed hybrids of European grapes with selections of local wild grapes to create grape varieties with high quality fruit that can grow in this climate. We have some of Swenson’s grape varieties; Kay Gray, St. Croix, and Swenson Red, growing in our garden. Through his work with the University of Minnesota and ongoing work by horticulturalists, many newer varieties of grapes can be grown around here, contributing to the growing popularity of wine making in this region. UW- River Falls professor Dr. Brian Smith is working on breeding California grapes with the wild riverbank grapes to make table grapes that can survive Wisconsin’s harsh winters. (See the River Falls Journal story about Brian Smith’s work at www.riverfallsjournal.com) I look forward to growing some of Dr. Smith’s new varieties of hardy grapes. In addition to providing ‘Tarzan vines’ for kids to swing on, those gangly wild grapevines modify their forest habitat, feed wildlife, and lend their hardiness to grape varieties that we enjoy for food and wine. Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at rfjspports@rivertowns.net.

--Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist        Snowshoeing around our woods recently, I was struck by how many wild grape vines are clambering up into the tree tops. Last summer’s abundant rain must have let them put on a lot of growth. Riverbank grape, Vitis riparia, is a native wild perennial vine that grows in much of the northern U.S. and southern Canadian provinces from Manitoba east.Where I grew up in northeastern Ohio, wild grape vines grow profusely up into the canopy of the large hardwood trees. I remember climbing thick networks of grape vines high up into the trees and taking naps in grape hammocks. Wild grape is so abundant there that the state of Ohio has declared it a noxious weed.Around here, riverbank grape vines climb trees and shrubs attached by their strong tendrils. Wild grapes weigh their hosts down with a thick cover of leaves, often cutting off light and killing young trees. In winter, the tangle of grape vines can catch lots of snow and ice, weighing down branches and dragging down whole trees. Wild grape vines can drag down enough trees to create openings in the forest, creating their own light-filled space to grow. There are a few places like that in our woods. I have seen some large ‘wild grape arenas’ in the lower Kinnickinnic River valley, along the Mississippi River and in other Pierce County forests.Riverbank grapes bear clusters of purple fruit in the fall with a characteristic whitish bloom. Birds, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, turkeys, grouse and pheasants eat most of the fruit before winter. The purple fruit can be harvested for making juice, jelly and wine. It takes a lot of wild grapes to make these products because each grape has two to six egg-shaped seeds that are flattened on one side. Some people say wild grapes have a wild ‘foxy’ flavor. I find them delicious but seedy.People foraging for wild grapes should beware of the similar-looking Canada moonseed, Menispermum canadense. The fruits of moonseed are poisonous. This native vine has unlobed or slightly lobed leaves with entire edges. Wild grape leaves are variable in shape, sharply lobed with jagged leaf edges. Moonseed has bluish fruits but with only a single crescent-shaped seed in each fruit.Wild grapes are winter hardy. Some of the wild grape plants in our woods have stems several inches thick, indicating that they have survived here many years. The European grapes (Vitis vinifera) that we prize for eating and for making wine aren’t winter hardy and are vulnerable to North American diseases and soil pests.One of the pioneers who renewed interest in grape growing in the upper Midwest was the late Elmer Swenson of Osceola, Wisc. He crossed hybrids of European grapes with selections of local wild grapes to create grape varieties with high quality fruit that can grow in this climate. We have some of Swenson’s grape varieties; Kay Gray, St. Croix, and Swenson Red, growing in our garden. Through his work with the University of Minnesota and ongoing work by horticulturalists, many newer varieties of grapes can be grown around here, contributing to the growing popularity of wine making in this region.UW- River Falls professor Dr. Brian Smith is working on breeding California grapes with the wild riverbank grapes to make table grapes that can survive Wisconsin’s harsh winters. (See the River Falls Journal story about Brian Smith’s work at www.riverfallsjournal.com) I look forward to growing some of Dr. Smith’s new varieties of hardy grapes.In addition to providing ‘Tarzan vines’ for kids to swing on, those gangly wild grapevines modify their forest habitat, feed wildlife, and lend their hardiness to grape varieties that we enjoy for food and wine.Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at rfjspports@rivertowns.net.

--Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist    

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