“Local” and “native” are two buzz words that can easily be overused and overlooked in conversation when referring to the plant kingdom. But one fruit that fits local and native is the muscadine grape.
Muscadines are native to the Southeastern U.S. and have been harvested and enjoyed for hundreds of years. Roanoke, located in Eastern North Carolina, is home to a muscadine vine nicknamed “The Mother Vine” that is considered to be over 400 years old and still thriving today.
Our muscadine grapes have a unique flavor and aroma compared to other grapes. While growing in popularity in the north and overseas, newer customers tend to not favor the chewy, leathery skin and the fairly pronounced seeds. Many folks, other than locals who grew up with muscadines, aren’t even sure of how to eat a muscadine grape. The proper way to eat a muscadine grape is to place the grape close to your lips with the stem end facing your mouth, gently squeeze the grape until the skin explodes or pops and gives you a delicious treat, seeds included. Some prefer to chew the skin but soon spit it out, because you just can’t chew the thing up.
With that said, muscadine breeders are constantly introducing new and exciting cultivars to the market. I attended the Small Fruits Consortium last fall in the western part of the state and was able to see firsthand the new face of muscadine grapes. Would you consider munching on witch fingers? Not likely, but what if “Witch Fingers” happen to be a muscadine cultivar with fruit similar in size and shape to baby carrots. Yes, they were very elongated and cylindrical and tasty too. A new cultivar bred to address the thick, chewy skin has just recently been released, and I am growing it. “Razzmatazz” boasts a thin edible skin, which I can attest is edible and a very delicious grape, and is also seedless. “Razzmatazz” is a hybrid of muscadines and vinifera grapes, what we refer to as table grapes (like the seedless grapes in the grocery store).
Unfortunately, in the Southeast, we have Pierce’s disease — a pathogen that will eventually kill table grapes, but our native muscadines have evolved to resist. This is why, even though many vinefera cultivars are locally sold and even recommended for our area by mail-order catalogs, I do not recommend purchasing these plants. They may, I repeat, they may live around seven years, but they will succumb to our local, ever-present disease pathogens.
In the meantime, please enjoy the fruits of our local harvest. There are many places in Robeson County to purchase and even pick your own grapes. The Robeson County Farmers Market, open Wednesday and Saturday mornings at the corner of Eighth and Elm streets in downtown Lumberton, is a great place to pick up local muscadine grapes.
For more information, contact Mack Johnson, Extension Horticultural Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 671-3276, by E-mail at Mack_Johnson@ncsu.edu, or visit our website at http://robeson.ces.ncsu.edu/.