Natural Species Profile -- Wild Grapes
By: By Kent Kammermeyer
Wild grapes (Vitis spp.) are native to the U.S. and found in the wild in all corners except some of the Rocky Mountain states. Muscadine grapes and leaves found in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic states are highly preferred by deer. All other grape leaves are not preferred, but the bunched fruit is high on a whitetail’s list as well as ruffed grouse, wild turkey, black bear, raccoon, and many species of non-game animals and songbirds.
The different species of grapes (over 30) vary in the detail of their broad leaves, in the size and quantity of their fruit and in other characteristics, but all are valuable to wildlife. Various common names for grape varieties include summer, downy-winter, frost, november, chicken, fox, possum, sugar, red, catbird, calusa, mustang, wine, riverbank, sand, canyon, desert, pilgrim, graybark, and others.
Most species occur in moist to somewhat dry forests from new forest plantations to mature forests forming arbors on shrubs and in small tree canopies. They occur along forest edges and less often along stream or river banks, spreading by vine growth and animal and gravity-dispersed seeds. Small, soft-skinned grapes mature from June to October in dangling clusters ranging in color from black to white-waxy. The muscadine is a distinctive grape native to the Southeast and largely grown there. Vines are strong growers and quite disease-resistant. Fruit is borne singly or in small clusters of less than a half dozen berries. Fruit skin is tough and separates from the pulp. Berries are nearly round, three-fourths to one inch or more in diameter.
Grapes are highly nutritious with one cup producing 16 grams of carbohydrates in addition to 13 mg calcium, 5 mg magnesium, 9 mg phosphorus, and 176 mg potassium. This compares favorably with apples and other fruits available to deer.
Of course, just as with other wild fruits, deer managers can fertilize wild vines with a complete fertilizer in early spring before blooming begins. Even with fertilizer, however, the yield of wild grapes varies greatly from year to year with total failures occurring sometimes. There are few serious pests of wild grapes with the exception of the Japanese beetle, which has a strong partiality for its leaves. As with apples, pears, blackberries, and other fruits that deer relish, I suspect that many of you you may wish to grow some for the deer and yourselves.
If you live from Delaware to the Gulf and westward to Missouri and Texas, your choice should be the muscadine. The plant may be injured by minimum winter temperatures of 0 degrees and should not be grown where temperatures frequently go below 10 degrees. As with all grapes, muscadines need full sun with good air drainage. Best results are obtained from well-drained sandy loams with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. They will not tolerate low, wet ground. In the first year, apply one-half pound of 10-10-10 after planting and then one-eighth pound of ammonium nitrate in late May and again in early June. Spread fertilizer in two bands 12 to 14 inches from trunk. Repeat in the second year, doubling amounts and lengthening bands to four feet. Thereafter, apply two to four pounds of complete fertilizer each March and one-half pound ammonium nitrate each June in a six-foot long band beginning one foot from the tree. Annual pruning must be severe to keep new fruiting wood coming and to prevent vines from becoming tangled masses of unproductive wood.
For further details and literature on other varieties (especially northern adapted), contact your state extension or county extension specialist. Literature from Cornell College of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota Extension Services has particularly good information on grapes as does the California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. Grown properly, there should be plenty of grapes for both you and your deer herd!