Florida is grape country. Really. And of the four true grapes native to South Florida, muscadine, Vitis rotundifolia, is probably the one most commonly seen in the wild. And one of the most common plants of any kind, depending on the habitat. It can be dominant, in fact.
Muscadine grows throughout the Southeast U.S. as far north as the Mason-Dixon line, and as far west as Texas. It is found throughout Florida. It can produce vines 90 feet long, or more, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, growing over scrub oaks, saw palmetto and growing to the tops of large trees. The leaves are round, a dark, shiny green, deeply and sharply toothed; stems can be reddish, turning woody as the plant matures. The species name, rotundifolia means round leaf. Muscadine vines will attach themselves to nearby vegetation via tendrils that wrap themselves around stems or branches. Other grape species have forked tendrils; muscadine does not.
Muscadine flowers in the spring, and produces loose clusters of four to 10 round, half-inch berries that turn a deep blue when ripe in late summer or fall. (Some cultivars produce berries two and three times that size.) The fruit is edible; in fact delicious. But it's smaller than other varieties, has a tough skin and is seedy. It does makes great juice and jellies and even wine. Muscadine vines are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate plants. The vast majority of plants are male, which explains why fruit-bearing vines tend to be rare considering how common muscadine is.
As you might expect, muscadine is an important source of food for birds and mammals, and also a source of cover. It is a host plant for two species of moth, the nessus sphinx and mournful sphinx. And, given its relative abundance, it was an important plant for Native Americans, who used it for medicines and for food. The Seminoles made a remedy for snakebite from the plant. They used muscadine to make a medicine for chronically ill children. They also used muscadine in ceremonies for the dead.
The Cherokee, meanwhile, made dumplings with the juice. They would mix muscadine juice with juices from other berries and add corn meal. Early European settlers took to eating muscadine as well. The abundance of wild grapes in Florida tempted Europeans to trying growing European grape varieties here, but unlike native species, they were not hardy enough to survive tough Florida conditions.
Muscadine is grown commercially throughout the Southeast. It might be the most important crop grape in Florida. Vineyards in the state tend to be small, less than 500 acres, and north of Lake Okeechobee. The nearest growers are in the Lake Wales Ridge area, best we can tell from the Florida Grape Growers Association. Muscadine is adapted to the heat, rain, insects, disease and soils here that would wilt other grapes. There are also more than 100 muscadine cultivars, or varieties developed for specific uses — some as table grapes, others for wines, juices and jellies. Muscadine grapes are full of antioxidents and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Fun fact No. 1: Muscadine and its relatives has 40 chromosomes; other grapes have 38. Fun fact No. 2: Ohio considers all grapes as noxious weeds if the number of vines on a property exceeds 100 and they have been left unattended for more than two years.
Muscadine is a member of Vitaceae, the grape family.