Wild Grapes - Pests or Blessings?

"Now you know how it feels," my brother said,
"To be a bunch of fox-grapes, as they call them,
That when it thinks it has escaped the fox
By growing where it shouldn't--on a birch,
Where a fox wouldn't think to look for it--
And if he looked and found it, couldn't reach it--
Just then come you and I to gather it." - 
Excerpt, Wild Grapes by Robert Frost

 

Wild Concord Grapes

Between March's Spring Peeper mating-call and October's heady-aroma of wild grapes, is a busy season of harvest.

Weeks before our CSA's bounty of cultivated vegetables are ready to be preserved, we "wildcraft",  popularized by Euell Gibbons, a 1960s author credited with awakening people to conservation and the benefits of eating wild food.

First published over four decades ago, Gibbon's first book,  Stalking the Wild Asparagus, remains a popular, highly-recommended beginner's guide to wild, edible plants. Gibbons wasn't a survivalist, but instead, raised with a knowledge of wild plants, handed down to him by his mother who taught the benefits of living off-the-land. 

In Stalking the Good Life, Gibbons devotes a good portion of his book to wild berries, including those used in wine-making or fruit-based lambic, a sour beer rich with beneficial probiotic bacteria.

We've located  most of the berries listed by Gibbons, many of them on our own three little acres, with the exception of the wild grape that thrives throughout the world, is ubiquitous in New England... 

Except on our property.

Neighbors to the our left, and neighbors to our right, routinely rip prolific, native fox-grape vines from fences, antique rock walls, and trees. 

Native grape vines like fox grape form suffocating thickets over shrubs and rapidly climb trees, threatening to out-compete their hosts for light. Though native to eastern and central North America, wild grape is an indisputable pest. Other native plants that are often invasive include blackberries, poison ivy, wild onions and cattails. Just as with exotic introductions, it's a small percentage of native species that cause problems.  Plant Selection: Native or Exotic?

Still,  even with their potentially invasive-nature, I longed to have my own source of wild grape vines, grown on my organic, chemical-free soil, for use in the making of fermented foods and pickling the grapes leaves to make dolmades.

Be Careful What You Pray For

Image Red Fox

I was awakened one morning, not by strange sounds, but by the lack of bird song.  Normally, the forest surrounding our home is the definition of cacophony, the enthusiastic Veery always the first to be heard, promptly at 4:30 a.m.  

Leaping from bed, I peered through my bedroom window, surveying the yard. There!  In the weak beam of sunlight filtering through the forest, a burst of red drew my eyes to the cause of the deafeaning silence - a fox.

She was using our 1,400 foot dirt-packed driveway as a hunting path, sauntering back and forth, working every inch of it - head held high, ears at full-mast - stopping every 15-feet to listen for small rodents in the untamed vegetation.

The Song of Solomon - "Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom" - and Aesop's Fables,  The Fox and the Grape , came to mind as I watched her hunt. Ironic! We had a fox, but no dew-kissed grapes - a normal part of their diet -  should her hunt fail!

A verse from the "Wild Grapes" by Robert Frost   "Now you know how it feels," my brother said, "To be a bunch of fox-grapes, as they call them, That when it thinks it has escaped the fox By growing where it shouldn't--on a birch, Where a fox wouldn't think to look for it-- And if he looked and found it, couldn't reach it-- Just then come you and I to gather it.", by Robert Frost, a local "authority" who once lived just up-the-road in northern New Hampshire, gave me an idea....

To be a bunch of fox-grapes, as they call them,
That when it thinks it has escaped the fox
By growing where it shouldn't--on a birch,
Where a fox wouldn't think to look for it--

...that it was time to check our wild birch trees for grape vines.  Perhaps, if we had a fox, we'd find fox-grapes.

To my amazement, we did, indeed, have a healthy fox-grape vine on our property.

To my dismay, unlike the vine of Frost's poem, ours was not growing in our birch-grove, but instead, hiding in one of my cherished dogwoods, New Hampshire’s Big Tree for May. Such a clever plant! Having snaked its way up the dogwood's trunk, the fox-grape was well-hidden behind a dense-screen of blooming peonies.

Dilemma...

To rip out the long-awaited grape vine? Or wait, harvesting its leaves and grapes, waiting to remove the vine in the fall?

"Wildcrafters do not regard wild plants as being simply available for the taking. Tending the plant communities to increase species diversity and to help plants proliferate is very common. Tenure of wild species includes selectively harvesting certain parts of a plant so that it actually grows back more prolifically and replanting sensitive plants. Seed or spore dispersal is also common. These tending activities also blur the line between that which is 'wild' or 'cultivated'."Craft & Tenure

On closer inspection, we determined the dogwood is at low-risk of suffocation - at least for this summer - so I'll  harvest and pickle its leaves, juice the grapes, and study cutting and transplant techniques.

This fall, after the first hard-freeze, I'll rescue my dogwood this fall, removing the coiled fox-grape vine.