Before the Columbian era, wild grapes were also among the foods that the natives would consume. In particular, in the eastern United States, the “fox grape” (Vitis labrusca) was harvested and consumed, however there were four species of wild grapes in the North American territories.
The natives gathered them in the undergrowth of the forests that covered large parts of the territory at the time.
Vitis labrusca is said to be the source of the name “Vinland”, which the Vikings led by Leif Erikson gave to the present-day Canadian island of Newfoundland.
The native American fox grape differs from the later hybrid varieties, in that it produces tendrils from most of its nodes. The leaves are medium-sized and have a grey-brown on the underside. The bark of the adult plant is easily detached from the stem.
The berries are medium to large and round or oval in shape. The pulp is fleshy and contains 2 seeds. The berries are easily separated from the stalk when ripe: they are harvested by hand in the late summer and early autumn. When fully ripe, the grapes turn a deep purple-red to dark purple and – in some cases – black. The skin is also slippery and separates easily from the pulp. The fruit becomes sweeter if it is left to hang on the vine until after the first frost.
Most of the eastern Vitis labrusca varieties on the market today – famous varieties such as Concord, Niagara and Catawba – are derived from this wild species.
This wild grape is very tasty; its characteristic aroma is called “foxy musk” in English. Vitis labrusca can be made into wine, although the finished product tends to be sickly sweet. For this reason, it is mainly used to prepare jams and jellies. The skin is sifted off whereas the seeds are not removed, giving the processed products a full, fruity flavour.
The native species Vitis labrusca is still found in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, but also in areas as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, where it has adapted to many different soils and climates. It can be found in anthropogenic habitats, bordering forests, woodlands, meadows and fields, even along the banks of rivers or lakes. Although these grapes grow prolifically, they are threatened by urbanisation and the loss of their habitats.