Of Muscadines and Scuppernongs

By Suzanne DeJohn

Remember, you heard it first here. The next new food fad? My money's on muscadines. Pretty soon you'll see muscadine tablets, juices, extracts, and more. Why? Perhaps you've heard of the so-called French Paradox -- the conundrum that the French have a much lower incidence of heart disease than would be expected considering their rich cuisine? (How can they eat those delicious cream sauces and decadent pastries and still be healthy?) It's all about the wine, or at least that's the current thinking. More specifically, it's about resveratrol, a potent antioxidant found in red wine. And although some of us are happy sipping an occasional merlot -- for its health benefits, of course -- researchers have been looking for other, non-alcoholic sources of resveratrol, and they've found it in our own backyard: the muscadine grape.

Muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia) are native to the southeastern U.S., where they've been cultivated for hundreds of years. Unlike other Vitis species, muscadines thrive in the heat and humidity. They don't like the cold though, and suffer in regions where winter temperatures linger below 10 degrees F. The vines are vigorous, reaching 100 feet in length in the wild, so growing muscadines isn't for the faint of heart, or the faint of trellis. The fruits are round and 1 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter -- "about the size of a hog's eye" according to locals.

Muscadine fruit is borne in loose clusters. Unlike table grapes, muscadines have a thick, tough skin and contain hard seeds. When I first moved here a farmer's market vendor gave me one to try, and, trying to be polite, I ate the whole thing. Now I know that most people nip a hole in the skin, then suck out the pulp and spit out the seeds.

The fruits range in color from light greenish bronze to purple to almost black. Light-colored muscadines are often called scuppernongs. The origin of this name is sketchy. One account states that a vine bearing light-colored fruits was discovered and propagated by cuttings. (The vine was probably a sport -- a unique plant arising from a spontaneous mutation -- of a dark-fruited plant.) During the 17th and 18th centuries, additional cuttings were placed into production around a small town named Scuppernong in Washington County, North Carolina, hence the common name.

Today, the light-colored muscadines grown commercially are cultivated varieties, rather than cuttings from this original plant, but most people still call them scuppernongs to distinguish them from their dark-fruited cousins.

Growing Challenges

Although those of you in the warmer parts of our region can grow muscadines in your backyard, that doesn't necessarily mean you should. Left unchecked, the vines will get frighteningly big (think Little Shop of Horrors), so you'll need to follow a rigorous pruning regimen to keep them manageable.

Vines should be set about 20 feet apart in rows; spacing between rows is up to you. The vines can then be trained to a very sturdy single wire trellis system set at a height of 5 or 6 feet to facilitate pruning and harvesting. Some types of muscadines are perfect-flowered, meaning the flowers have both male and female parts, and are self-fertile. However, some of the more commonly available varieties bear flowers with only female parts, so a perfect-flowered variety must be planted nearby if you want fruit. Fortunately, the plants are generally pest-free, with the exception of Japanese beetles, which can defoliate the vines.

Those of you unable or unwilling to grow your own muscadines, take heart. The fruit is readily available in September and October in grocery stores and some farmer's markets. You can eat it fresh or make jams, jellies, and pies. Or wine. In a recent study, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that muscadine wines can contain up to seven times more resveratrol than regular wines. Even more impressive, they found that the fruits themselves have up to 40 times the amount of resveratrol as regular table grapes. Plus they contain the highest levels of antioxidants and ellagic acid of any other fruit tested, far more than blueberries, a nutritional powerhouse. (Ellagic acid is thought to help prevent abnormal cell growth.) And the levels of antioxidants weren't just a little higher, they were much higher.

I'm quite sure that you'll soon see muscadine juice next to pomegranate, blueberry, and cranberry juices -- all marketed as antioxidant-rich. In the meantime, I'm going to look for a muscadine vineyard to invest in.

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