Muscadines, scuppernongs, & bullaces

It’s that time of year again – time for our iconic southern muscadine grapes to produce their green, purple, black, and golden fruits. Beyond picking them for table grapes, or “eating grapes” as we call them, Muscadine is a staple of jelly-makers and wine-makers all over the area.

Several years ago I purchased five vitis rotundifolia vines of mixed cultivars. I planted them along a fence row and trained them to run in both directions along a pair of wires about belly-height off the ground. I spaced the plants so that the tips of the mature vines would overlap by 6-8 feet so they can cross-pollinate nicely.

Some of my vines produce small purple fruit and some produce the larger champagne-colored grapes that are my favorite. I didn’t keep up with which plant was which but I alternated purple and golden down the fence row.

Folk wisdom has it that when you plant, it takes about three years to produce. The first year they weep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap. That seems to be about how long it took my vines to take off.

I didn’t think they would produce very good this year because we didn’t get to trim the vines properly before the warm weather snuck up on us and the sap rose in the vines, but they turned out to produce a pretty decent, if not record, crop.

My dad always called the purple ones muscadines and the golden ones scuppernongs but he said that back in the day, his people called them all bullaces.

Bullace is a misnomer for vitis rotundifolia grapes because a bullace is a kind of plum or sloe (as in sloe-gin) that grows on a tree similar to a blackthorn. True bullaces are an old-world plant – they do not grow wild in the United States.

Calling muscadines by the name bullace is probably a historical artifact from my dad’s people, some of whom were McInnises, when they came to this country from Scotland through North Carolina in the 1700’s. When they came to this country they must have seen these American grapes and called them by a name of a similar-looking old-world fruit.

North Carolina figures into the other name for this native fruit – scuppernongs. This Algonquin Indian word is the name of a river in what is now northern North Carolina. The Scuppernong river empties into the Albemarle Sound at Columbia, North Carolina. This was the site where these American grapes were first found by Europeans so they were naturally called Scuppernong grapes.

I’ve read that the Scuppernong river makes for a nice, mild canoe trek if you happen to be in the neighborhood but that it is nothing to go out of your way for. Last year some Scouts and I paddled the Bogue Chitto from Holmesville to Franklinton, and I can tell you that the early October Indian summer is a great time to ease up under some shady trees overhanging the river and pick a handful of low-hanging muscadines for a refreshing snack.

Originally published in the Enterprise-Journal Newspaper



Categories: Adventure