Pennsylvania Is Ripe with Great Grapes

By Wiegman, Paul G. | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

Pennsylvania Is Ripe with Great Grapes


Wiegman, Paul G., Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


In my last article, I wrote about the bounty of autumn. I focused on nuts -- walnuts and hickory nuts to be specific. From the Botany 101 part of the article you will recall that the plant parts we commonly called nuts are in botanical parlance a fruit.

Well, since it is still fall, I'll use this article to write about another fruit. This time, one that is botanically and commonly called a fruit -- the grape.

Pennsylvania's native flora includes seven species of wild grapes. The most common are summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), fox grape (V. labrusca) and frost grape (V. riparia).

Grapes are characterized by a woody stem that is flexible rather than stiff. Flexible stems to the botanist are vines. The bark of grape vines is composed of thin, papery, dark gray strips that easily peel off in handfuls. Dried piles of grape vine bark make a perfect tinder to start a fire from a spark.

The other distinguishing feature of grapes is that the plants have tendrils.

Tendrils can be stems, leaves or leaf stems that have been modified to be used for climbing, support or attachment by one plant to another. Grapes aren't the only plants with tendrils. The peas in your garden have tendrils that are modified leaves. Clematis, the native and garden vine, has tendrils developed from the stem of the leaf. In grapes, tendrils grow from the woody stem of the plant.

When tendrils touch a still object for long enough they begin to curl and wrap themselves around that part for support. A few plant tendrils use an adhesive rather than curling to gain a foothold.

Virginia creeper, another common native vine, and English ivy, a cultivated garden plant, use a sticky adhesive exuded from the end of minutely branched tendrils to glue themselves to trees, rocks, stone walls, and in the case of the cultivated ivy, the side of a house. If you have ever tried to pull English ivy off a brick wall you realize that the plants natural glue can be quite strong.

Wild grapes have flowers like other flowering plants. However, the spring blooms are small and inconspicuous, so they aren't easily seen. The flowers are pollinated by insects and, if everything goes well, fruits ripen in late summer.

Botanically, grapes are berries.

Again, this is one of those areas where botanical terminology differs from the supermarket or common usage. Botanically, a berry is a fleshy, several-seeded fruit developing from a single pistil (part of the female organ of a flower.) True berries, things that a botanist would call a berry, include cranberry, blueberry, gooseberry, black currant and red currant. These are plants on which your grocer would agree. However, in the botanical world the tomato, eggplant, chili pepper, avocado, grape and banana are all berries.

To make the terminology between botanists and grocers even more confusing, to the botanist things that are not berries include the strawberry, blackberry, raspberry and boysenberry. These are aggregates in the mind of the botanist.

Back to grapes.

Along with the common summer, fox and frost grapes in Pennsylvania, we have several species which are rare. Indeed, two are on the endangered species list. These are New England grape (V. novae-angliae), sand grape ( V. rupestris).

New England grapes are found in moist mountain woods and ravines.

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