It can be hard to find pleasure outside in the dog day heat of a south Georgia August. But, there is one saving grace found among the swarming gnats and wet, heavy air. Muscadines. That sugared-up bulbous fruit growing among the vines. Maybe kudzu covered the south in the early 20th Century, but as I look around, it seems to me the native muscadine vine has reclaimed its title as the vine that covered the south. They grow thick and heavy like the air across the green land of the south—in flower beds, field edges, up telephone poles and pine trees. In wooded thickets and backyards.
Wild muscadine vines bear small fruit, heavy on the seeds and a bit on the tart side. They grow wild from Delaware south to central Florida, along the Gulf Coast to East Texas, extending up the Mississippi river to Missouri and throughout the southern half of the Appalachian mountains. When European explorers found their way to North America, the Native Americans that greeted them had been harvesting this wild fruit for centuries. They picked them from the wild and cultivated them for food, drying the grapes in the sun, and used them to make a blue dye. Captain John Hopkins reported Spanish missionaries in Florida making wine from muscadines in 1565. A few years later, in 1585, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, who were among the first explorers sent to this new world by Sir Walter Raleigh, described the land,
“so full of grapes…on the sand and on the green soil, on the hills and on the plains, as well as every little shrub as also climbing towards the tops of tall cedars, that I think in all the world the like abundance is not to be found”.
Many of us today plant improved muscadine varieties, some of which can grow as large as half dollar pieces and much sweeter than their wild counterparts. We plant varieties with bronze fruit and those with the dark purple color of midnight. Vines with names like ‘Triumph’, ‘Cowart’, ‘Fry’, and ‘Supreme’.
I don’t trust people who claim they don’t like sweets and muscadines are certainly not for such blasphemous individuals. They will also not be favored by those who whine when they get their hands dirty or who are grown too accustomed to only eating food that comes from plastic packages. People who forage for all their food under fluorescent light. People who have never sweated for their food. They won’t like the thick skins you spit out along with the seeds wrapped up in the fruit’s flesh.
Both of my grandfathers were big on muscadines and I first found the joy of this juicy, sweet explosion in my mouth by eating the grapes growing on their vines. They taught me how to clench the grapes between my teeth with the little stem scar pointing to the inside of my mouth, bite down to send the sweet flesh of the fruit squirting into my mouth. They taught me to wallow it around inside my mouth, savoring this little sugar bomb, separating the seeds from the fruit with my tongue, and to spit out the skins and seeds. I eat them like candy and they are best when picked in the morning after a rain or with a heavy dew glistening on their leathery skins. Later in the day as I graze the vines I disturb June beetles and even wasps hidden in the vines. But, the wasps are too drunk on the fermented juice of the most ripened grapes to sting me.
When my wife and I built our house, the first thing I did, even before the house was completed, was to plant 4 muscadine vines around the outside edge of the spot I had chosen for my garden. I ordered the vines from a nursery in Tennessee and treated those four vines as if they were each my firstborn child until I could get them in the ground. Now my oldest daughter will soon graduate from High School and leave the nest, while the vines grow thicker.
One of my grandfathers called them Bullaces, as do many old timers. The name “Bullace” was actually first used in reference to the dark or purple form of the fruit. As I grew older I learned that this is just one of the names by which muscadines are known. They are also called bull grapes, bullet grapes, and Southern Fox grapes. One of the most common names for this North American grape is “scuppernong”. An odd name, scuppernong. One that has confused the issue even further.
Much as many of us in the south, whether we are talking about Pepsi, Coca-Cola, or Dr. Pepper, call all carbonated soft drinks “Coke”, some people call all muscadines scuppernongs. Others call all bronze varieties scuppernongs. But in fact, the correct use of the term scuppernong is in reference to the first named muscadine variety.
Sometime in the mid-1700s a man named Isaac Alexander was hunting along the banks of the Scuppernong river in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. A river named for the Algonquin Indian word, ascuponung, meaning “place of the bay plant”. Over the course of his journey, Alexander happened upon a particular vine bearing a large bronze fruit. The vine soon became widely propagated under the rather unoriginal name of ‘Big White Grape’. The name was changed in 1811 by a Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper editor named Calvin James, to ‘Scuppernong’ in honor of the river along whose banks the grape was found.
What may be the oldest living true scuppernong vine, called the Mothervine, is found today on Roanoke Island. With multiple gnarly trunks rising into a wooden beam trellis, the vine’s tendrils spread out over half an acre. It is said to be the largest muscadine vine in the world. Some claim the vine has been around since Raleigh’s first explorers came over and planted it there. Others say it was planted by the Native Americans inhabiting the area or perhaps by members of the famous Lost Colony, who seem to have been swallowed up by the new world wilderness. It is more likely that the mothervine was planted sometime in the late 18th century.
I am endlessly interested in the stories behind the crops we grow. Where they came from. Who tamed them and brought them out of the wild and how long ago such events occurred. But, when I think of muscadines, its not the obscure history of this fruit that comes to mind. It’s the fruity smell of muscadines ripe on the vine that permeates the hot, humid air of a late summer evening. Its the refreshing burst of sweet flavor stored up in that leathery skin. Muscadines are nature’s way of rewarding us for making it to the end of summer in the south.
As the fruit ripens and fades, the green of their vines is one of the first to fade to yellow before the leaves brown and fall away on the first autumn winds. And each year as I pluck the first muscadine from the vine and pop it into my mouth I think for a moment about the two old men who introduced me to this delightful fruit. I think about how they taught me to separate the seeds from the flesh of the fruit in my mouth and spit them out. I think about their example of taking such pleasure from so simple a thing as enjoying the fruits of nature, each in their own time.
©2020 Lenny Wells