Identifying wild grapes
I have noticed several vines bearing fruit on my walks in the Toronto ravines. I believe those are wild grapes but since I am not from the area originally, I want to make sure they are not poisonous before attempting to cook with them. I learned about moonseed, which is poisonous and can look similar. The ones I’ve seen (see picture) have tendrils, which moonseed should not have, but I want to make sure. Do they look like wild grapes to you?
Also, I’ve heard that wild grapes taste better after the first frost, however they seem to be ripe now and I think they will be gone by the time of the first frost. What do you advise?
Thanks a lot for your help.
You are absolutely right that there are native grapes, 60 to 70 species that grow in the northern hemisphere. Of those, Vitis riparia, V. aestivalis and V. labrusca grow in southern Ontario (Soper and Heimburger, Shrubs of Ontario, 1982). The differences between them mostly are described by characteristics of the leaves. All flower and bear small, purple fruit that are edible to people and wildlife. Looking at your photo, you have captured one of these species.
Moonseed vine belongs to a family of mostly tropical plants, some 300 to 400 species. The only species that grows in southern Ontario is Menispermum canadense (Soper and Heimburger, 1982). The leaves are similar in shape to the grape, but the fruit, a drupe, contains a single flattened seed in the shape of a crescent moon. Unlike the grape family, it does not have the sticky disks, and tends to grow within moist forests and shaded areas along banks of streams. All parts of the plant are considered poisonous, the poison being an alkaloid. For more information on this plant:
Be aware that there can be some confusion with another plant in the grape family: Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus sp.). There are several species, and one is also a woody vine with sticky disks that enable the plant to climb, and bear blue to purple berries. To differentiate this plant from the grape, again goes to leaves – grapes have single leaves, but the Virginia creeper has compound leaves with 3 to 7 leaflets for each leaf in a fan shape. The grape leaves turn a yellowish colour in the fall, but the Virginia Creeper will turn red in the fall before they drop. It is often used as a cover for a wall or fence, and the fruit is eaten by birds and other wildlife. Often, a Virginia creeper will be growing where no one planted it, but because the birds have eaten the berry and pooped out the seeds along a hedgerow or fenceline. Although not poisonous, I am unaware of anyone eating these fruit.
As a grape jelly maker, I can attest that the wild grapes make fine jelly. To eat them, they should be ripe, but are very seedy. It is sometimes difficult to get them at the ripe stage, as wildlife don’t seem to feel the need to let them ripen fully before “harvesting” the fruit. Timing is everything.
Although these grapes were used in the formative years of wine making in Ontario, they don’t make very good wine. The European grape (V. vinifera) is the stock for most of the wine industry and they are cultivated here, usually on the hardier root stock of a native grape.