Native Divine Vine: Nantucket’s Fox Grape
by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station
In honor of the Nantucket Wine Festival, it is time to learn more about our local varietal, the Fox grape (Vitis labrusca), which grows on hardy vines that thrive in sandy soils and covers large portions of the entire island of Nantucket. “Vitis” is Latin for “vine” and “Labrusca” is the early Latin name for "wild vine”. No research topic in this day and age can exclude a quick trip to Wikipedia, which tells us that the Vitis labrusca, or fox grape, is a species of grape native to the eastern United States. It is the source of many grape cultivars, including Concord grapes, which are the largest cultivar, estimated at 80% of labrusca production. The species is used primarily for sweet grape juice and associated products - jelly, jam, and preserves, bringing to mind that “Welch” jelly flavor we all have embedded in our memory. Other cultivars include the Catawba, Delaware, Niagara, and much rarer Ives grape.
Early colonists mention the fox grape by name frequently in American history. From A History of Wine in America (Pinney, T. 1989): John Bonoeil, describing the grapes of Virginia in 1622, writes that "another sort of Grapes there is, that runne upon the ground, almost as big as a Damson, very sweet, and maketh deepe red Wine, which they call a Fox-Grape." A report dated 1638 says: "I have not seene as yett any white grape excepting the foxgrape which hath some stayne of white"; John Parkinson writes in 1640 of "The Foxe Grape" that "hath more rugged barke"; and another writer in 1687 speaks of "The Fox-grape . . . in itself an extraordinary grape." William Penn in 1683 writes of "fox grape" as an established name in American speech.”
The origin of the name “fox grape” has veered wildly and somewhat desperately in many international texts to have been derived from everything from the Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes to a theory that the sweet smell attracts foxes and other small mammals. Other writers have tried to find a link between intoxication to the derivation of “fox” as in “outfox” to refer to its alcoholic qualities, but most fox grapes have a very low sugar content and hence a low alcohol content when fermented. Some 18th and 19th century French oenophiles attributed the name to a derisive word illustrating the inferior quality of the wild grapes from the New World. The preponderance of evidence points to the name originating from a musky smell similar to a fox.
More than 40 species of native grapes grew wild in North America when the colonists arrived. The Massachusetts colonists tasted these grapes and attempted to make wine from them. They were disappointed with the “foxy” or “musky” odor and soon started importing the more familiar Vitis vinifera from Europe. Wine was so important to these early colonists, that more than 20,000 acres of grapevines had been planted by the early 1700s. Governor Winthrop took over Governor’s Island in Boston for the purpose of growing grapes. Unfortunately, these imported vines quickly died. Only those grapes bred from native species or hybrids of European and native grapes succeeded.
The settlers blamed the grape failure on cold temperatures and year-round high humidity. While these problems may have hampered growth, it was a tiny parasitic louse called Phylloxera that was responsible for killing the European grapevines. Over time, the native species had developed a resistance to the louse, but imported grapevines had no resistance, and their root systems were quickly destroyed. In turn, when French explorers first saw the highly productive grapes in the New World, they were quite excited by the high yield and robust growth they observed. They had been told of this musky, “foxy” smell and taste and they assumed that the off flavor would be eliminated by moving the vines to the "superior" soil in France's vineyards. They potted some up and shipped them back to France. Indeed the grapes kept their high yield and robust growth....but, the flavor was still foxy. What was not clear at first was that the potted grapes from North America also brought the Phylloxera to France. The French grape hosts had no defense against the exotic alien aphid and the vines started dying rapidly. Germany and Italy closed their borders and trade with France in a vain attempt to keep out the pest. Thousands of acres of vineyards were lost. The solution was found in grafting, or joining the aphid-resistant rootstock of the fox grape to Vitis vinifera. Today all European grape varieties are grow on the roots of their American cousins. Unfortunately, this same cycle of pest exchange may be occurring again as the parasitic leafhopper, Erythroneura vulnerata, which occurs on our fox grape has been recently observed for the first time in Europe.
Grapes at the Field Station
It is characteristic of the fox grape to have vines that have tendrils on every node of the cane (alternated with clusters). This is in contrast to the European wine grape Vitis vinifera. Fox grape vines can climb higher and grip trees and other woody plant species tighter, which leads to their “kudzu” type draping over plants on the island. Fox grape can creep over everything in its path, and can engulf and even knock down shrubs such as bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) and red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Tendrils are specially adapted organs that help vines climb. Tendrils are thigmatropic: that is, when one touches an object such as a stem or a stretched wire, a hormone is released in the tendril that alters its straight growth to a rapidly coiling spiral. Fox grape can have stems more than an inch in diameter. Tendrils have one disadvantage in that they can only wrap around relatively small stems. The large grape vines in mature forests all must have had their start when the surrounding trees were small.
Although the fox grape is protected in Kentucky as a species of concern, in a few other states it is considered a noxious weed. The natural range for the fox grape is in all the eastern states except Florida. The only western state it is currently found in is Nevada, although it has started an expansion into western states such as Wisconsin as an escapee from introductions of the vine.
The Native Americans cultivated wild grapes. As is the case for many wild plants, a large amount of medicinal remedies were derived from all parts of the plant except for the roots which are poisonous. The Cherokees used the grapes for relief from diarrhea, urinary tract infections, thrush, and indigestion. The wilted leaves were used to reduce breast tenderness after the birth of a child. The Mohegans made poultices for headaches and pain from the leaves. And of course, the Native Americans also used the fruit as food.
Grapes are true berries and their skins impart the color most often associated with a wine’s hue. Eating grapes is good for your health and your heart. Grapes have a high sugar content, making them a good energy source. They contain Vitamin A, B1, B2, C, iron, potassium, niacin, minerals, pectin, organic acids (malic, tartric), and fiber. Grape skins and seeds contain tannins. The seeds also contain an edible oil which is rich in Vitamin E and poly-unsaturated fatty acids. When extracted using heat, it does not become rancid and can be used in cooking. Recently in the mainstream press we have been hearing about the advantages of phytonutrients in our diet as a defense against many cancer and heart disease. Phytonutrients are biologically active substances responsible for giving plants their fragrance, color and flavor. They also help protect plants from pests, viruses, bacteria and excessive sunlight. Grape phytonutrients include catech, resveratol, quercetin, and anthocyanin. Resveratol, found primarily in the skin of grapes, has been found to fight liver and colon cancers. It is also believed to reduce heart disease through its anti-inflammatory properties. Several research studies are looking into the positive effects of grapes on lowering LDL and total cholesterol, decreasing oxidation of LDL cholesterol, reducing clotting of platelets, lowering both systolic and diastolic blood pressure and improving arterial elasticity. In addition, compounds found in purple grape juice and wine have been found to fight urinary tract infections and to block a dangerous cardiovascular effect of second-hand smoke. Certainly an excellent reason to enjoy of glass of wine, or grape juice
A local historical link for the fox grape comes from the book Nantucket Wild Flowers by Alice Owen Albertson (1921, Maria Mitchell Association). In describing this plant, Albertson mentions that the preferred habitat is low thickets, open places, and bare sandy fields. She describes the vine as climbing by multiply branched forked tendrils with woody young branches, shredded bark, and leaves scattered opposite a tendril or flower cluster that is light green with tawny hairs. The tawny furry bottom of the leaves was another red herring investigated by other researchers while tracking the etymology of the name “fox grape.” Albertson goes on to tell us that the fruit is a pulpy berry with a deep purple or amber or greenish purple color with a sweet musky flavor. She was impressed by the luscious jams made by the Nantucket people and observed that a very old vine near Abram's Point measured twenty one inches around the base and seventeen inches a foot above. Thus, the tradition of the wild fox grape has become interwoven into our island natural heritage.