Ask most southerners about growing muscadines, Vitis rotundifolia, and a sense of pride and personal memories will show on their face. The fruit originated in the southeast, thrives in our heat, and defies disease and insects that decimate their Vitis vinifera relatives. While the world’s finest wines may be from vinifera vines, the working class muscadines sustained Native American populations for centuries, and then the immigrants, with their fresh and dried fruits and sweet, heady beverages.
Most wild muscadines are dark-skinned but the first muscadine cultivar written about was a bronze-colored grape found by Isaac Alexander in Tyrrell County, North Carolina, around 1760. It became known as ‘Scuppernong’ (named after the river) and although this name is commonly used to describe bronze grapes, not all are scuppernongs and there are actually over 150 different cultivars of muscadines. History is uncertain, but the Mother Vine on Roanoke Island is the oldest known scuppernong vine, perhaps cultivated by the Native Americans in the 1500s.
Every garden should have a muscadine. We had several vines in our garden for years—ones that were too high for easy pruning and grapes too small and tough for pleasurable eating. Then my husband planted a ‘Supreme’ to cover our front porch and my opinion skyrocketed to love for these beautiful fruits. Pruning is within reach and the enormous fruits taste like homemade jelly. We freeze bags of them for winter smoothies, desserts, and straight frozen treats. Everyone loves the vision of luscious purple fruits within reach as they enter our home.
Enjoy tasting different muscadines at local markets in August or September and see which ones you favor. The catalogs will give more specifics—you can choose a fruit based on color, size, sugar content, skin thickness, cold hardiness, ripening time, and whether the flowers are self-fertile or require a second vine for pollination. ‘Supreme’ and ‘Nesbitt’ are the two purple varieties rated in the top five fresh eating cultivars in North Carolina, and ‘Summit,’ ‘Tara’ and ‘Triumph’ are the bronze varieties. For wine, you may want to grow ‘Carlos’ or ‘Noble’, but in the home garden you have many options.
How to Grow Muscadines
They are so easy to grow that even novice gardeners can revel in success. They need a thorough late winter pruning, and a couple of light trimmings in the summer to keep them at bay. Site selection and how you trellis the vine are critical to keeping it easy. You will read about all kinds of trellising systems, but for the home garden, train the vine to go where you want, and then each year trim it back to that same plant structure. It may take one to three years to get this structure fully formed. Our wire trellis forms a lattice over the porch at 4-foot intervals. Annual pruning takes the year’s growth back to this lattice, leaving shoots with three to four buds spaced a hand’s width apart. Occasional summer pruning neatens the excessive growth.
Make sure the plants are in full sun and well-drained soil. Do a soil test, fertilizer, and lime as recommended, but these hardy grapes are not heavy feeders so don’t overdo it or you will end up with a forest of shoots. The only time I water the vines is when they are fruiting and we hit a dry spell—I want to keep the grape skins soft and the fruit juicy. Otherwise, they are drought-tolerant plants you don’t have to baby and chemical sprays are unnecessary. A two to three-inch layer of wood mulch keeps them happy through the hot season.
Unfortunately, the grapes are so tasty that birds, raccoons, possums, squirrels, and other critters love them too. Bird netting tends to be hard to handle and can also trap small creatures, so we throw spun polyester row covers over the vines when they are at peak ripeness. We can still walk below them for harvest, but it slows the animals’ thievery to tolerable levels. We also host a formidable plastic owl that we move around for the surprise impact.
Give that dog pen some fruity shade, line that neighbor fence and share the harvest, or cover a romantic nook with this hardy native. It will take about three years from planting to get a reputable harvest, but then you will have productive vines for many seasons to come—maybe even 400 years!
For further information, visit grapes.ces.ncsu.edu/muscadine_grape_production.
Featured image: Purple Muscadine / Jeana Myers
Jeana Myers, PhD, is the Horticulture Agent for Wake County. For gardening questions, contact the Extension Master Gardeners of Wake County at 919-250-1084 or email [email protected]