By Terry W. Johnson
We will never know how long people have relished the sweet, fruity taste of the rich-colored, thick-skinned muscadine. Without question, our admiration for what is called the Grape of the South spans thousands of years. Native Americans prized muscadines long before the first Europeans arrived in North America. However, wildlife were devouring muscadines long before the first humans crossed the land bridge between Asia and North America.
Remarkably, in spite of the muscadine being a valuable plant for both humans and wildlife, for some reason when backyard wildlife enthusiasts set out to develop a wild haven they rarely consider this woody vine an important addition to their yard.
The distinction of being the first person to write about muscadine grapes was earned by the famous English adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh arrived in the New World in 1584 with the ambitious goal of colonizing an area then known as Virginia. (Nowadays this area includes the states of Virginia and North Carolina.)
As we all learned in school, his Roanoke Island colony failed. Although this endeavor did not bring Raleigh the fame and fortune he envisioned, he discovered a natural treasure on the southern shores of North America—the muscadine. He wrote in his journal that this wild grape grew in abundance along the coastline of what is now North Carolina. Its vines, he wrote, entwined on shrubs and tall cedars alike. He found the wild grapes so plentiful that "in all the world the like abundance is not to be found."
The muscadine soon became so prized by colonists that it became the first native grape cultivated in the colonies. To this day, muscadine grapes, with colors ranging from deep purple and even black to bronze, remain a valuable commercial crop. In fact, Georgia is the top producer of muscadines in the U.S.
Muscadine vines are able to grow in a wide variety of habitats. They can be found in bottomlands along creeks and rivers, and atop hills, fencerows, clearcuts and mature forests. They often appear in our yards, winding their woody vines around our prized camellias and other ornamental plants.
Muscadines have volunteered in a number of locations in my yard. When they do not threaten to blanket a valuable shrub, I permit them to grow. Except for partaking in a handful or so of fruits, I leave them for my wildlife neighbors.
Unless you look carefully, you would never know that the fruit is there until autumn when the leaves begin to turn. During this special season, they stage a dramatic coming out party. Almost magically, muscadine leaves turn bright gold, creating eye-popping colors cascading down trees, shrubs and fences.
Yet prior to this gala event, wildlife are well aware that muscadines are there. From July through September, the plant’s sinewy vines bear a crop of what is arguably the most delicious fruit found in nature. The list of wild animals that seek out muscadines is as varied as it is long. White-tailed deer will actually browse the vines themselves. Likewise, they will also eat the grapes. Whitetails have been known to gorge themselves on the bronze orbs to the point where they suffer from indigestion. Other mammals that compete for ripe muscadines include black bears, raccoons, coyotes, red and gray foxes, opossums, cottontails, striped skunks and both gray and fox squirrels.
Butterflies, such as the question mark and comma, sometimes become intoxicated when they feed on fermenting muscadines. The muscadine is a host plant for both the nessus and mournful sphinx moths.
As for gamebirds, wild turkeys, quail and wood ducks all eat muscadines. As such, don't be surprised if, while sitting in a tree stand near a woodland stream, you spot a wood duck plucking muscadines from beneath the clear, gently flowing water.
More than three dozen species of songbirds eat muscadine berries. This long list includes mourning dove, red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers, great crested flycatcher, tufted titmouse, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, gray catbird, eastern bluebird, Baltimore and orchard orioles, wood, hermit and gray-cheeked thrushes, yellow-breasted chat, summer and scarlet tanagers, eastern towhees and many more. It should be noted, too, that, muscadines serve as an important food source for songbirds winging their way south each summer and fall.
With so many different critters vying for muscadines, it is easy to see why most of these grapes don't last very long. However, the few that do wither and dry on the vine to provide wildlife with food in winter, when finding something to eat is often difficult.
I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that muscadine vines provide birds with nesting sites and nesting material, as well cover for animals trying to escape predators and severe weather.
If you enjoy muscadine jelly, jam or wine, as well as wildlife, why not try growing muscadines? They are easy to grow and do exceptionally well when grown on a trellis and used to create an arbor.
I hope you will find a place for muscadines in your yard. If you do, it won't take long for you to discover why this native woody vine is such a valuable plant for humankind and wildlife alike.
Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”