I mentioned in my last foraging post that I spend a lot of time hiking. While I always make sure I’m prepared for long hikes and bring plenty of water with me, I’ll admit, I’m kind of lazy when I go on shorter walks and don’t bother carrying my water canteen. Regardless of the length, I inevitably still get thirsty. I love when I come across edible berries, to help quench my thirst or give me a bit of a snack. And right now, while exploring on trails near fresh water, I’ve been foraging for wild grapes.
How to Identify Wild Grapes:
Like their culinary or commercial wine cousins, California wild grape, Vitus californica, is a deciduous vine that climb with spiraling tendrils. They have woody brown stems, with often shedding bark. The leaves are broad-fan shaped leaves up to 6″ wide, and are shallowly lobed. They are similar to domestic grapes, but appear a bit more round in general shape than the cultivated varieties. New leaves are green and they fade to yellow or red when fall comes, before falling off the vine.
The grapes are much smaller than domestic varieties of grapes, but hang in the same type of clusters. They are purple, with each grape usually being no larger than a 1/2″. Depending on how close to a vineyard you are, sometimes you’ll find them green or blush. This is result of natural hybridizing from the commercial varieties.
In California, you’ll find wild grapes in canyons and on the banks of streams and rivers in riparian woodlands below 4000 feet. They are located on both the western and eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada, in the Central Valley, and along the coast up to Oregon.
Wild grapes are vigorous vines, that will quickly climb up trees and shrubs. There are some valleys and banks that are completely covered- quite a site to see. Someone not familiar might think they are invasive, on par with kudzu of the South, but they are a natural part of our ecosystem. Seeing places like this make me think of the jungle or Jurassic Park.
How to Forage for Wild Grapes:
I like to enjoy these foraged treats fresh, while on my walks. They have tiny seeds and rather tart skin, but the flesh is refreshing and sweet. I’ll pick a cluster of grapes, snapping the main cluster stem from the branch, and then eat the grapes one by one as I walk, spitting out the seeds.
If you wanted to gather several clusters, a pair of pruners would make things easier. Because of the seeds, they aren’t great for eating as table grapes or for drying, but would make a lovely juice. If you chose to go this route, it would be easiest to do by cooking the stemmed grapes with a bit of water in a pot, until the skins opened and turned soft, then crush with a spoon or a potato masher, and then pressing though a sieve.
Locally, I’ve been foraging for grapes in my walks near the Laguna, along the Russian River in Healdsburg, and at Riverfront and Steelhead Regional Parks.
If you enjoyed this, make sure to check out my other posts in this fall foraging series: