Muscadine (scientific name Vitis rotundifolia) is a species of grapevine native to the United States. It can be found in the south-eastern and south-central US states, from Texas and Oklahoma in the West to Florida and Delaware in the East. Unlike other grapevine types, muscadine loves summer heat and needs only a limited period of coolness. It thrives in the humidity and warm temperature of its native range.
When unripe, the muscadine berries are green, often until they become almost fully mature. As they become ripe, they turn bronze or dark purple, often completely black. The fruits can be consumed fresh but have an extremely hard skin. Usually, the easiest way to eat them is to pierce a hole in the skin and suck the contents. The grapes are important both as food and as a source of polyphenols. They can be prepared as juice, jelly or wine.
In its native area, the plant is vital for various species of wildlife. Animals use it as a source of food but also consume the leaves and take cover or hide in them.
The muscadine is also known as “America’s First Grape” because it was found as a wild plant by the first European settlers of America. As early as the 1500’s, the settlers have started to cultivate and use the plant. It has remained in cultivation ever since but it has been rediscovered in the last few years, when the benefits of the plant have been reassessed.
In the wild, muscadine is a deciduous vine that grows very strong and can reach a total length between 60 and 100 feet. Scientists have placed the plant in its own Muscadinia sub-genus, because of the major differences from other grape varieties. Unlike other grapes, its tendrils do not branch, the shoots are warty and the bark doesn’t shed.
Muscadines have leaves between 2 and 5 inches in size. These can be round or broadly ovate and both of their sides are glossy. Their edges are coarsely jagged, with a so-called acuminate point. The upper side is dark green, while the below one is green or yellow. When the leaves become mature, the get firm and slightly rough.
As a dioecious plant, the male and female flowers of muscadines can be found on different plants. The flowers are small and green, located on small panicles. The flowers can be pollinated by both the wind and various insects. Using selective breeding, some varieties that can fertilize themselves have been created. The flowers of these varieties are almost perfect and can supply pollen to the female plants as well. In a mixed single row, every third vine should be a self-fertile variety. Otherwise, these should be placed at about 25 feet from the female vines. The risk of hybridization with different grape species is low.
Unlike the very large and packed berry clusters of other grape varieties of both European and American species, the muscadine fruits are found in loose groups of no more than 3 to 40 berries. These are round, with a diameter of 1 to 1-1/2 inch. The skin is very thick and they have a maximum of 5 oblong seeds, with a very hard shell. The color of the grapes varies from bronze to red, purple or black. The lowest sugar content is around 16%, increasing to 25% for some cultivated varieties. Some cultivars and all wild fruits are musky like American grapes, just less intense. However, most of the varieties cultivated today are no longer musky and have a fruity smell. The fruits are often compared with the jaboticaba, both in terms of appearance and taste.
Like most fruits, the grapes are an excellent source of fibers. Because of the thick skin and hard seeds, both of which are edible, the muscadine is unusually rich in insoluble fibers. These fibers combat hemorrhoids, diverticulitis and constipation by regulating the digestion and bowel transit.
Since they are low in calories, muscadine fruits are excellent for an active lifestyle or weight loss diets. The composition of the grapes is particularly good for this purpose because of the mix of fibers with a high percentage of water. Both of these make the stomach feel full, without actually adding too many calories. The grapes are rich in soluble fibers, which keep the stomach occupied for longer and delay the need for another meal. Fruits like muscadine are also a great alternative when you want a desert, instead of various processed sweet products. These have massive amounts of added sugar, which increases the levels of cholesterol, raises blood pressure and can lead to obesity.
The fruits are also rich in antioxidants, the compounds that can shield our tissues from the destructive action of free radicals produced by our metabolism. Modern science has focused on diets built on antioxidant foods. These can protect from a wide variety of diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart problems or chronic illnesses in general. One very promising compound found in muscadine grapes is ellagic acid, which has been proven by studies of the American Institute for Cancer Research to decrease the reproduction rate of cancer cells. The grapes are also very rich in vitamin C, with double the amount found in seedless varieties.
The skin and the seeds of the grapes are the richest in phytonutrients. These have a very strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action that has been validated by modern lab tests.
Today’s medicine is extremely concerned about the free radicals. These cause significant cell damage but can be neutralized by antioxidants. Free radicals can be a by-product of our body after sustained efforts but are usually produced by radiation and toxic agents such as solvents, smoking or pollution. When the DNA of cells is damaged by free radicals, the result can be cancer. Since there appears to be a direct link between free radicals and aging as well as a wide variety of diseases, scientists have studied them carefully. Free radicals can cause Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and other inflammatory bowel diseases, birth defects, rheumatoid arthritis, brain dysfunction, cataract, low immunity, atherosclerosis or cancer.
One way to keep free radicals under control is to eat food rich in antioxidants. These compounds can be found in almost any food but some products and supplements are richer and more effective. For example, even if the blueberry is a major source of antioxidants, muscadine grapes have more than twice their power.
By blocking the mutation of genes, the phytochemical compounds in muscadine grapes are able to delay the effects of aging. At the same time, the body is protected from the chronic diseases associated with it.
Scientists have also discovered that these compounds can boost the lifespan of human cells, which increases the repair rate of DNA and provides other benefits. The phytochemicals in muscadine grapes also have a strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action at blood vessel level. This prevents atherosclerosis and limits the damage caused by free radicals. By consuming muscadine grapes constantly, you can control blood pressure by maintaining the health of the blood vessel network. At the same time, the grapes prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
The fruits also provide other benefits at blood level. The compounds found in them reduce the rate of sugar absorption and boost the effects of insulin, resulting in lower blood sugar levels.
People from the South-eastern states of the USA use muscadine grapes for a variety of recipes. The most popular is Muscadine wine but juices, jellies and jams are also prepared.
Since they are a part of the berry family, muscadines are rich in the phytonutrients found in red or purple berries in general. They are a source of nutrients like vitamin C, fibers and potassium, with low amounts of sodium and fats. A particular feature of muscadine grapes is the rich content of ellagic acid.
Collection and harvesting
The grapes of most cultivated varieties do not ripe at the same time and have to be harvested individually. When ripe, the fruits tend to fall on the ground, which can be useful for easier harvesting. It makes it possible to put a tarpaulin on the ground under the plant and shake the vine strongly. The grapes become ripe between the middle of September until the end of October and a single plant can provide over 20 lbs. of fruit. The grapes stay fresh for some time, especially if stored in a fridge.
The muscadine fruit can be eaten raw but the hard skin and tough seeds of some varieties can make it a bit difficult. Normally, the fruits are made into various desserts like juice, jelly or jam. The most common use for the grapes is in the production of wine. It is very sweet and its taste resembles classic wines made from muscat.