Wild Grapes

Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia) is among the most common of our wild grapes.

Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia) is among the most common of our wild grapes.

Wild Grapes (Vitis spp.) are an often misunderstood, but extremely valuable plant in our local woods. There are over 60 different species in North America, with 11 in Virginia, and 7 in the DC area. These woody vines can grow over 100ft in height and some varieties (granted in Europe) are known to live over 400 years. Most older vines have exfoliating bark and forked tendrils which help identify them. There are many species of birds that utilize the shredded bark to build their nests and many who favor nesting in the tangles themselves.

There are many people who mistakenly think that grape vines are harmful to trees. Others mistake them for the invasive nonnative vine Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) which can smother and shade out native plants, and while removing it, accidentally destroy the grapes. One way to tell the difference is that Porcelainberry has white pith in its stems rather than the brown of grapes.

Porcelainberry is easily mistaken for grape when not in fruit, but is not edible and is an invasive nonnative vine.

Porcelainberry is easily mistaken for grape but is actually an invasive nonnative vine.

Native grape vines are rarely damaging and will not kill healthy trees. They do not strangle and constrict the tree trunks (girdling them) like many nonnative vines who did not evolve with them actually do. Let’s recall that if they really did kill off the native trees, they would have done so a long time ago. So these native vines get an undeserved bad rap and are actually a beneficial and integral part of the woodland edges.

People have had a long association with grapes of course. Viticulture has been around and tied with civilization and even religion for centuries. When the Norse first reached North America there were so many grapes that they referred to is as Vinland.

>> Read more at the Capital Naturalist blog.