Wilderness Underfoot: The grape in Illinois

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111220568216282.jpg’, ”, ‘Sideways Illinois – Our state boasts more than 50 wine-makers, some as close as Galena, Genoa, and the Chicago suburbs. Illinois wines include award-winning varieties such as Cynthiana, Chambourcin, and Seyval Blanc. In the wine-making industry, the wild frost grape is valued for its rootstock, upon which cuttings from better bred varieties of wine grapes are grafted. The frost grape has hardy roots with resistance to parasites and disease. Grapevines are planted in the vineyards early in the spring, after the danger of a hard freeze has passed. The plants prefer well-drained soils and full exposure to sun. If properly pruned and cared for, they will produce fruit for many years thereafter.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111220574916281.jpg’, ”, ‘The oldest wine ever found – Don’t look to France, Italy, ancient Greece or Rome for the origins of wine-making. The First Place Award goes to the Asians, or more specifically, to the ancient Chinese. Wine has been discovered in decorative bronze jars in the tombs of Chinese nobles, dating back 9,000 years. This Stone Age wine has been analyzed, and it appears to contain fruit from the hawthorn tree, honey, and fermented rice. Grapes also may have been used. The Second Place Award goes to Neolithic villagers in Iran, 7,000 years ago, who did indeed use grapes in their wine, as well as various plant resins and millet.’);

Grapes and wine have delighted humans for thousands of years…

If you spend much time outdoors, you’re likely to run across the native grape of Illinois. This is the frost grape (Vitis vulpina). It’s a hardy plant that grows throughout most of the eastern U.S., from Texas to Florida in the south, and from Nebraska to New York in the north.

The frost grape’s reputation varies from state to state. Peculiarly, it has the status of being threatened in Michigan and endangered in New York, while it is a prohibited noxious weed in Ohio, and an invasive species in several other states. Fortunately, it’s right at home here in Illinois.

Frost grapes grow on woody vines that are capable of climbing the tallest trees and choking out the sunlight. This is the reason for their noxious and invasive listings in certain states. By the time they reach the height of a tree, they have usually stopped producing the wonderful fruit that humans and other animals enjoy consuming so much.

The fruit of the frost grape is nearly black when fully ripened. Like other wild grapes, it is seedy; nature doesn’t seem to share our affection for seedless fruit. This grape makes excellent jams and jellies, and suitable red wines.

Grape leaves can be used in cooking, as food wrappings; they impart a pleasant flavor on their fillings. The grapevine’s tendrils are also cooked and eaten, and the sap is sweet and flavorful.

From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue

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