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Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America

A Complete Wild Food Guide

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Season: Tendrils & Leaves: Spring & Early Summer. Grapes: Late Summer.

Urban, Rural or Both: Both

River Bank Grape (Vitis riparia) or other Grapevine species, including cultivated Varieties (Vitis).

The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map of all Grape species in North America here. BONAP map color key here.

Of the Grape vines that are native to Eastern North America, it is often difficult to tell which one you have. From the perspective of the fruit, taste and availability are what should guide you. As long as you have a Grape vine, and it is neither the Mustang Grape (Vitis mustangensis) or the poor tasting Winter Grape (Vitis cinerea), try it and see if you like it.

As I said above, the different Wild Grapes of Eastern North America are hard to tell apart for all but Vitis scholars. Here are some characteristics that should help. On the underside of the leaves of the River Bank Grape, the veins are hairy, but no, or few hairs on the rest of the underside. With the River Bank Grape, the underside of the leaf will not have an obvious white or silver color - that would be the Silverleaf Grape. On the River Bank Grape, on the growing ends of the vine in the spring, often the growing tip will not be visible as there are two small leaves acting like a pair of hands clasping the growing tip - looks like the leaves are protecting the growing tip. On the others, you can see the growing tip. Also, with the River Bank Grape, on the leaves, the side lobe tips tend to point the same direction as the main lobe - that is pointing up, where with the Silverleaf and the Summer Grape, the side lobe tips tend to point out more at an angle. Another difference, but not apparent until you have the leaves side by side or pictures side by side, the sawtooth pattern is deeper and sharper on the margins of the River Bank Grape that either the Silverleaf, the Summer Grape or the Fox Grape. The sawtooth on the Riverbank Grape is thinner and pointy, while with the Muscadine, the sawtooth is triangular - as long as wide at the base.

Tendrils & Leaves:

Grape leaves, especially young ones, are used in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. Warak Arish is fill rolled in grape leaves and cooked. I have used them to make vegetarian rolls. But what many are not aware of, is that the tendrils, when green and young, make an excellent raw salad ingredient, go great in soups cooked and as a wild raw snacking food while in the woods.

The best tendrils for salads or as snacking food are the young green ones (some varieties they are red-green) that are nearer the growing end of the vines reaching out to grab onto something. Once they have found a branch or surface to cling to, you are too late as they are difficult to unwind and have probably started the process of becoming woody. My favorite grape for using the tendrils is the native River Bank Grape, though the other native ones are fine.

The raw taste is lemony or citrus like. They are tart because they are full of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). When I first tasted a tendril raw, the first thing I thought of was a candy called sweet tarts. When cooked, they impart a flavor very similar to a squeeze of lemon.

The best time of year for gathering is May and June, but as long as they are tender and green and within 12 inches or so of the growing tip of the vine, they are fine in July, but are a little more chewy.

In a salad just use as many as you would like chopped. By the time I've picked a hand full, I'm tired of picking and that's how many I use. I have to confess however, that when I'm picking them for using in salad or cooking, I tend to eat half of them on the spot as I'm picking. They zing up the flavor of the salad and have a nice tender crunch to them without any stringy texture as long as you picked the right ones early enough in the season.

Grape tendrils

Grape Tendrils and young light green leaves. On some Grape vines the tendrils are green, some are red. The taste seems to be almost the same on all kinds.


Grape Leaf

Grape leaves have many shapes. This one is good for Warak Arish.

Be sure you don't confuse the Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) for Grape vines. It has a compound leaf with 5 leaflets. At first glance, the compound leaves look similar to Horse Chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum leaves. In contrast, the grape is not a compound leaf and really does look maple like.

Another vine that grows wild in the east of north America is the Wild Cucumber vine, also called the Prickly Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata). It has a leaf that is closer in shape to the grape, but it looks a lot like a simple five pointed star with 2 tiny points near the bottom. Unlike the grape, it is an annual and does not form a thick woody trunk like the grape. The grape's bark on the trunk near the ground and further up if the plant is older, has dark reddish bark that hangs off in shreds. Do Not eat the tendrils or leaves from the Virginia Creeper or Wild Cucumber. When in doubt, throw it out! A very simple thing to try to remember is that Grape vine tendrils are come from the vine opposite the leaves, whereas with the Prickly Cucumber, and all members of the Cucurbit family, the tendrils come out 90 degrees from the base of the leaf stems on the same side of the vine.

Yet another vine that can be confused for the Grape Vine is the deadly poisonous Canadian Moonseed (Menispermum canadense). With this one, you don't have to worry about picking tendrils - it doesn't have any. But, with the Canadian Moonseed, the leaves are poisonous, and they have the same general shape as some species of Grape vines, although once you know how to recognize the difference, you won't have any problems in confusing them. The biggest problem with the Canadian Moonseed is the berries can be mistaken for Grapes.


The Fruit - Grapes:

River Bank Grape (Vitis riparia), Fox Grape (Vitis labrusca), Summer Grape (Vitis aestivalis var. aestivalis), Silverleaf Grape (Vitis aestivalis var. bicolor) and in the Southern area of the USA, the Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia). Leave the Mustang Grape (Vitis mustangensis) alone, it can cause skin and mouth irritation. It is from the very Southern parts of the USA. Please look it up if you live in that area to make sure that is not what you are picking. Also, don't bother with the poor tasting Winter Grape (Vitis cinerea).

Just in case you don't know - Grapes of any kind are toxic to dogs and cats. Foods containing grapes or raisins should never be fed to cats or dogs - they are toxic to their kidneys.

River Bank Grape (Vitis riparia). Sometimes known as the Frost Grape. Since the River Bank Grape often shows up along streams, rivers and wetlands, be on the lookout for Poison Ivy, Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix). Be careful you have the right plant if you are not experienced. Go back to the section above and read about Buckthorn, Virginia Creeper and Canadian Moonseed. Those three have fruit that is poisonous that is about the same size and color as River Bank Grapes. It just amazes me how often I see River Bank Grape vines growing over a Buckthorn bush with the fruit side by side at the same time of year. See the picture below for a River Bank Grape vine growing over a Buckthorn. Also, go to the entry on the River Bank Grape vines here for further information on this plant and its look-alikes.

River Bank grapes are smaller than cultivated grapes, often pea sized, and dark purple or blue looking with a whitish dusty surface called a bloom. To some people, they taste good fresh, to others not so good (too strong and tart). The seed takes up most of the space within the grape - the flesh is sparse. I have to say, this is one of my favourite wild food plants. I absolutely love eating the fresh tendrils, the leaves made into Warak Arish during the spring, and enjoy the tart, fresh, powerful burst of Grape flavor from the fruit. They are so "Grapey" in flavor, you'd think each one was a concentrate of ten normal grapes. Grape jelly or jam made from these is very strong flavored. A thin layer of this on toast is fantastic.

Take one grape at a time off the bunch, and look at it. So many of the grapes are no good, and sometimes there are bugs hiding between the individual grapes. This is a great snack food while you are out walking in the woods or fields. It's a lot of work, but you can make a very distinctive jam out of them by using River Bank Grapes and following any grape jam recipe meant for domestic grapes.

Make sure you don't have a Virginia Creeper, a Canadian Moonseed or Buckthorn.

Also, Grape vines often cover other trees and bushes that also have berries that can look similar. I see this often with River Bank Grapes covering Buckthorn Bushes. Buckthorn berries are about the same size as River Bank Grapes. Just be sure what you are taking is grapes from the vine, and not berries from the bush that the Grape vine is climbing over.

Fruit in bunches that can be mistaken for the Grape in bunches (at least the River Bank Grape) is the poisonous Canadian Moonseed (Menispermum canadense). The fruit of this plant is deadly poisonous, so you must be able to know the difference. The Canadian Moonseed does NOT have tendrils on the vine. The leaves have no "sawtooth" pattern on the edges. The final way you make sure is by checking the seed in the berry or grape. Grape seeds are almost spherical - ball or egg shaped, while the poisonous Canadian Moonseed berry seeds are flat with a chunk missing, giving a "Crescent Moon" shape. That is where the "Moonseed" name comes from. To me, the seed reminds me of an empty pie shell that someone has taken a bite out of. The center area is concave - hollowed out looking like a pie shell. Before eating what you think is a Grape from a bunch on the vine, squish one with your fingers and look at the seed.

grapes wild sm

Typical River Bank Grapes. These were found on the edge of a creek climbing over a Buckthorn and hanging down. Make sure the grape bunches are attached to the vine and not the bush or tree they are growing over when you are learning. This is especially true in this case, as there were poisonous Buckthorn berries very near the grape bunches. The three dark green leaves in the lower right of the picture are Buckthorn leaves.


Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).


Growing grapes in your home garden:

For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website River Bank Grape page.


Descriptions:


River Bank Grape (Vitis riparia):



River Bank Grape (Vitis riparia) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


Grape trunk

This is the main trunk of a River Bank Grape. It is about 5 inches in diameter. If you see this in the woods in the spring, follow it to a great harvest of tendrils.


viri_004_lvd

River Bank Grape (Vitis riparia) drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA NRCS. Wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service)


viri_003_lhp

River Bank Grape (Vitis riparia) seeds. Make sure this is what the seeds look like in what you think is a grape. (Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)


Fox grape (Vitis labrusca). This native Eastern North American grape is the source for many varieties, most notably the Concord Grape. It is also used as one of the species for a few hybrids. The Fox part of the name comes from the musky smell that comes from this plant and its fruit. This plant, or its derivatives, have a tendril or flower/fruit stem on each and every node. This grape is easily identified by what is known as a "slip-skin" characteristic. That is, the skin of the ripe grape comes off from the flesh of the grape very easily. Underside of leaf has short white hairs, and longer brown hairs.

The leaves of this grape can be shaped remarkably similar to the Canadian Moonseed. However, there are two very important distinctions. One, the fruit of this grape vine are larger than the fruit of the Canadian Moonseed. But the key characteristic that you need to check is that this grape has a tendril or flower/fruit stem coming from each node on the vine. The Canadian Moonseed does not grow tendrils - it climbs by "twining", that is, wrapping around. Also, as stated above, always check the seed in any wild grape to make sure it is not a Canadian Moonseed.



Fox grape (Vitis labrusca) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


vila8_001_lvd

Fox grape (Vitis labrusca) drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 506)


vila8_003_lhp

Fox grape (Vitis labrusca) seeds. (Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)


Muscadine Grape (Vitis rotundifolia). This one does not grow where I live, so the information I give is not based on experience, but I've included it so if you live where it grows, you have some information as a starting point. I hope to get to try these some day, they sound fantastic.



Muscadine Grape (Vitis rotundifolia) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


viro3_003_lvp

Muscadine Grape (Vitis rotundifolia). (Carl Hunter, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth)


viro3_001_lhd

Muscadine Grape (Vitis rotundifolia) drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 509)


viro3_005_lhp

Muscadine Grape (Vitis rotundifolia) seeds. (Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)


Summer Grape (Vitis aestivalis var. aestivalis). This Grape vine is also used to hybrid with other species for commercial Grape production. The fruit of this vine has a lower acid level compared to other native Grapes.


Summer Grape

Summer Grape (Vitis aestivalis var. aestivalis) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


Grape Leaf 2

Summer Grape (Vitis aestivalis var. aestivalis). Lobes are not always this deep.


viae_001_lvd

Summer Grape drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 506)


viae_003_lhp

Summer Grape seeds. (Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)


Silverleaf Grape (Vitis aestivalis var. bicolor). Sometimes also called the Summer Grape, but that is confusing, as the Summer Grape listed above does not occur in Ontario where I live, but the Silverleaf does. At one time they were separated distinctly, with the Summer Grape called the Vitis aestivalis, and the Silverleaf called the Vitis bicolor. The leaf undersides are completely different on these two. The Silverleaf leaf has no hair on the leaf underside, while the Summer Grape has a hairy leaf underside. The Silverleaf is also silver on the underside (Just like the Silver Maple leaf is silver on the underside) where the Summer Grape leaf underside is green.


Silverleaf Grape

Silverleaf Grape (Vitis aestivalis var. bicolor) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


vibi5_001_lvd

Silverleaf Grape (Vitis aestivalis var. bicolor) drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 507)





This information is on the Poisonous plants page, but I wanted to also put it here with the grapes as these plants can be mistaken for grapes, and all three are poisonous.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)- POISONOUS:


Prickly Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata)- POISONOUS:


Canadian Moonseed (Menispermum canadense)- POISONOUS:


Compare the drawings of the Grape, Bur Cucumber and Canadian Moonseed. I've drawn them to highlight the differences in their leaves.

Vitis drawing

Notice how the edges of the Grapes leaves have a distinctive "Sawtooth" pattern. Even Grape leaves with deep lobes (see picture here) have the same sawtooth pattern. Also, with the Grapes leaves, the leaf veins follow to the points of the sawtooth ends.



Echinocystis drawing

What stands out about the POISONOUS Prickly Cucumber is the distinctive "five pointed star" shape of the leaf overall.



Menispermum drawing

The POISONOUS Canadian Moonseed has no sawtooth pattern on the leaf edges. The lobes are very widely rounded.


virginia creeper leaves and berries sm

DO NOT mistake the Virginia Creeper for grapes. Notice the five leaflets coming from a center. The one above is in late August, and has berries that could be mistaken for grapes by the inexperienced.


virginia creeper tendrils sm

Notice that it has tendrils as well, similar to grape tendrils. Never eat any part of the Virginia Creeper. Grapes always have a single “Maple leaf” like leaf on each leaf stalk, while the Virginia Creeper has five leaflets on each leaf stalk.


Prickly Cuc leaf

Notice the light green color and the simple 5 pointed star shape of the leaf of the Prickly Cucumber.


Prickly Cuc and Grapes

Here is an example of a Grape vine and Prickly Cucumber vine growing together intertwined. Note the sawtooth edges to the Grape leaves, and the lighter yellowish green color to the simpler Prickly Cucumber vine leaves. When gathering Grape vine tendrils, be sure you are not picking any Prickly Cucumber tendrils.


Prickly Cuc fruit and tendrils

Here is the fruit from the Prickly Cucumber with some dried up tendrils in early fall.





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Important Notes when Identifying
Some Cautions
Dangerous Plants to Avoid Touching
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