It seems difficult to locate a pure variety of the actual native North American grape today, due in part to there being such a discrepancy in how people referred to them, the white often called scuppernong, and the deep purple variety often called muscadine. The fact is, they’re all muscadines, the purple and the bronze. Scuppernong is a specific type of muscadine. They’re bigger than table grapes and have a tougher hull on them.
From an early date wild varieties were crossed with grapes brought from Europe and the resulting product was neither fully wild nor possessing the identical traits of the tame.
Bailey summed up the usual distinction between muscadines and scuppernongs according to color. “The fruits [muscadine] are purple-black, except in the scuppernong, which is yellowish”. This is the distinction Southerners still make today. – Sketch of the Evolution of our Native Fruits. 1898. NY.
Giovanni de Verrazzano, considered the first explorer to discover the region, recorded native grapes in his logbook while exploring the Cape Fear River Valley for France in 1524. “Many vines growing naturally there”, refers to the pure, unadulterated native plants before anyone began to cross them with European varieties.
“Grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain, nor Italy hath no greater”, was penned by Gov. Ralph Lane in 1585.
In 1698, Hennepin’s account of North America included the notation that the land between New France and New Mexico produced wine made from wild grapes as good as any from Spain. His account tells us the wild vines grew off the ground, just as they did during my childhood. “…grapes as big as damask plums, we felled several trees to gather them…grapes are very big and sweet”. – Hennepin, Louis. A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America. 1698. London.
Spooner acknowledged the French settlers in Illinois produced some one hundred ten hogsheads of strong wine from native grapes and tells us how settlers in Lower Louisiana (now Alabama) were encouraged to continue to improve upon that. “The government of the United States, desirous of encouraging the cultivation of the vine, and making of wine, made extensive grants of public lands for this patriotic service, to some of the distinguished exiles of France, who chose Greene County, Alabama…” – Spooner, Alden. The Cultivation of American Grape Vines. 1846. Brooklyn.
Muscadine grapes are native to the southeastern coastal plain area of the United States. They thrive in most of the soils of this area, which extends from Virginia to Florida and along the Gulf coast to Texas. The distribution of the species extends also northward along the Mississippi River to Missouri and reaches well up into the Blue Ridge Mountains along the southeastern seaboard.
The Europeans were slow to realize the value of native varieties, and the native species was crossed with European varieties in an attempt to encourage the best traits of each. Farmers around York and Lancaster, Pennsylvania were active in such grape culture in the early 1800’s.
When colonization of America began the explorers returning to the Old Country carried glowing descriptions back with them of the bountiful yields of grapes to be found in the New World. These reports came from all parts of the North American continent, for the wild grape was found in almost every part. These sights suggested the vineyards of England and Europe with which the explorers were familiar. They thought of bringing their varieties of grapes to the colonies with them. Not once did they think of there being anything of value in the native American grapes. Not until the beginning of the eighteenth century did the colonies learn that the European grape could not be successfully grown in Eastern United States. Indeed it was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that the native grapes of North America began to be cultivated. For decades previous to this date people had been content to gather the wild grapes which grew freely in the virgin forests. – PA Dept. Agriculture. Bulletin. No. 217. 1912.
In 1913, the U.S. Bureau of Plant Industry reported that wild white grapes, called scuppernongs, had been recently located in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The name was native in origin, and the white Rotundifolia was thought to have originated in northeastern North Carolina. Several sources claimed the original vine, discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh on Roanoke, still lived and bore fruit into the early 20th century, however, a government Bulletin discounted the theory saying it was admittedly very old, but not the 400 year old plant some claim it is. Some were reported that lived between 100 and 120 years. – Bulletin. No. 273. 1913. Washington.
The scuppernong was said to be longest in cultivation of all the North American grapes in a 1938 Dept. of Agriculture Bulletin. “Although the place of origin cannot be stated positively, owing to the age of the variety, it has been pretty definitely established as being in Tyrrell County, N. C. before 1760”. Isaac Alexander went down in history, right or wrong, as having “discovered” it there in 1755. Bulletin No. 1785.
There is much discussion in the journals of wine made from the scuppernong, but apparently nonalcoholic versions were also appreciated.
The settlements are much more frequent, and almost every dwelling house has its adjacent arbor covered by one or more scuppernong vines, forming an object even at this early season a very pleasing to the eye, and which in summer must be as beautiful as profitable. It is very strange, that when the expressing the juice of this grape is done so generally, and to such great extent, in this part of the country, that no one attempts to make true wine from it, by proper fermentation. For though what is called Scuppernong wine, if of the best kind, is a delicious drink, it is not fermented liquor, nor does it indeed deserve to be called a wine. – Ruffin, Edmund. Farmer’s Register. April 30, 1840.
As a child I looked forward to accompanying my parents and sometimes my grandfather into the back woods of his farm in Northwestern Alabama to gather wild muscadines which were made into delicious jelly. In thinking back on those treks through the great woods I can almost smell the rich fruity aroma that came with shaking the ripe muscadines from the vines and picking them up. The old farm is long gone, and so, unfortunately, are those wonderful muscadine vines.
GRAPES, Ratafia of. Take some fine muscadine grapes, pick them from the stalks; bruise and press them, so as to extract all their juice; then dissolve some sugar in the grape juice, adding to it brandy and cinnamon; let the whole infuse for a fortnight; then strain it through a filtering bag, and bottle it off. The proportions are one pint of brandy, ten ounces of sugar to one pint of grape juice. – Dolby, Richard. The Cook’s Dictionary. 1830. London.
CANNED SCUPPERNONG. One peck of scuppernongs, one quart of water, one quart of sugar. Press the seeds and pulps from the skin and put to cook in a granite vessel. Have the skins and water cooking in a larger vessel. When pulp is soft, strain from seeds and add to the sugar and skins. Boil all together twenty minutes and put in well sterilized jars, and seal at once. – First Presby. Church. The Florida Tropical Cook Book. 1912. Miami.
SCUPPERNONG BUTTER. 1 qt. scuppernongs. 3 cups sugar. Cover scuppernongs with water and cook twenty minutes. Rub through a colander. Add sugar and cook twenty minutes, stirring frequently. – Atlanta Women’s Club Cookbook. 1921. Atlanta.
SCUPPERNONG GRAPE JELLY. Wash and crush grapes. Add water in the proportion of 1 quart water to 4 pounds grapes. Cook from 20 to 30 minutes. Strain through cheese cloth and filter through flannel jelly bag. To 4 cups juice add 2 cups orange pectin and 4 ½ cups sugar. Cook to 223 degrees F., or 106 degrees C. Pour immediately into hot sterilized glasses.
PIE FILLING. Excellent pie may be made from the fresh Muscadine grapes. Remove the seeds and soften the skins as in preparing the grapes for canning…Sweeten to taste, using about one cup of sugar to a pint of the combined pulps and skins. Put into a deep pie plate lined with crust, put on an upper crust and bake until brown. – Young, W. J. Products and Utilization of Muscadine Grapes. Bulletin 206. S. C. Agricultural Experiment Station. Nov. 1920.