Grapes were already growing in the United States when the settlers first arrived. There are at least two dozen species that occur in the United States. They are easily recognized by their woody vines that climb high into trees, often at the edges of woods. The forked tendrils and heart-shaped leaves distinguish them from other vines.
Wild grapes are the ancestors of cultivated grapes and are edible, as are the seeds. Young leaves can also be eaten. All are edible, but some are sweeter or larger than others. Most grapes are sweet to eat straight from the vine and make excellent jelly, pies, and wine. Since the fruits contain lots of natural pectin, jelly can be made without purchasing commercial pectin, and honey can be substituted successfully for sugar.
The most popular wild grape in areas where it grows is the muscadine grape. The fruits are larger than other wild grapes, with a thick, tart skin and sweet, juicy pulp. Scuppernong grapes that are cultivated in backyards or grown commercially are a variety of the muscadine and have light-colored skin that is thinner than the muscadine. The scuppernong also grows wild and is sometimes referred to as the blond muscadine.
Muscadines begin ripening in late summer and continue into the fall, hanging in small clusters rather than large bunches like other wild grapes. They can be gathered rather quickly by holding a bucket under the clusters and picking them by the handful, letting them drop into the bucket as they fall. Muscadines can be found from Delaware south to Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma.
Wild grapes contain seeds that are crunchy and somewhat woody tasting. Regardless, eat them as well. Grape seeds, as well as the leaves and skin, provide a rich source of resveratrol, an anti-aging compound. Instead of buying grape seed extract, eat the wild grapes, seeds and all.
There are other grape species that are more tolerant of colder temperatures and grow farther north than the muscadines. Fox grapes can be found as far north as Canada and west to Wisconsin and Michigan. The leaves are wider than other grapes with either shallow lobes or no lobes. Summer grapes have smaller fruits that are less sweet than other wild grapes. Look for the deep lobes on some of the leaves to distinguish this grape from others. Winter grapes also have small berries that get sweeter after a frost.
Oregon Grape—Not a True Grape
In the west is a fruit that looks like a grape, but it is not a grape. Its common name is Oregon grape, and it is in the barberry family. The name is referring to the fruits that grow in clusters and turn dark bluish-purple when they ripen in the fall. The leaves are dark green and shiny, somewhat resembling the leaves of American holly. The fruits are best made into jams or jellies.