Our goal for a grape vineyard at the SFA Gardens is rather simple. We want to plant and evaluate as many muscadine grapes as possible. We have a perfect bottomland spot in the Jimmy Hinds Park. This stellar native, Vitis rotundifolia, has a lot going for it.
Before you stick up your nose in the air and say something undignified, please hear me out. Give this southern fruit a chance. First, let’s remember that muscadine grapes are native to the Gulf South. They are resistant to Pierce’s disease and other maladies that affect their more sophisticated cousins. You can eat them out of hand and share them with the wildlife that like them about as much as we do. The fruit can be green, bronze, purple or black, depending on the variety. Well tended vineyards can produce 8 to 18 tons per acre! They live a long, long time and can swallow your home and your barn if you leave for a decade or two. Of course, there are negatives. Let’s face it, muscadine wine is not taking home the red ribbon at the enology events. Most are thick skinned a bit seedy. The fruit ripens unevenly so grapes are normally picked one at a time and not as a cluster. the vines can be either pistillate or self-fertile so a pollinator may be required. While muscadine wine enthusiasts in the South, swear by the foxy and robust flavors, others see this Southern relative as unrefined, callous and not worthy of discussion. Muscadine discrimination is what I call it.
This new planting is located at the north end of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center at Jimmy Hinds Park. Jimmy Hinds was the first Agriculture teacher at Stephen F. Austin State University and actually farmed with students where this planting now calls home. Jimmy had a penchant for fruit trees and vines, vegetable gardens and he is considered as the father of modern poultry farming in East Texas. The effort to create the collection led our program to collaborate with Dr. Justin Scheiner, grape viticulturist at TAMU, College Station, Texas – and one of our former students. It’s that full circle again. Working with Justin, other universities and a few specialty nurseries we’ve reached 54 varieties of muscadine grapes in the collection. They are cheerful in the bottomland soils of LaNana creek. Because of space issues, only one plant per variety is planted, and again, every plant is labeled.
What’s exciting is there are new varieties emerging all the time. Breeders are focusing on thinner skins and the ability to pick a “cluster” rather than individual grapes. Eudora is a recent USDA release by Stephen Stringer that produces a small cluster of high quality grapes. ‘Southern Jewel’ is a University of Florida release, a black, self-fertile muscadine that produces grapes on clusters It’s one we have yet to bring into the collection. We are still on the hunt for Loomis, Doreen, Golden Isles, Regale, Sterling, Magoon and African Queen. Vitis X ‘Razzmatazz’ is so new we’re not sure what to say other than it’s gotten tremendous promotion. In fact, the first vines were sold by mail order nurseries for $99 each. Ouch. It’s a Jeff Bloodworth creation and I think it’s actually 1/2 Vinifera and 1/2 Muscadine? It’s continuous flowering, seedless (!) and produces grapes from August until frost. It’s a fascinating plant and flowers may need to be pruned away to prevent overbearing and the vine becoming unthrifty. Tasty!
Ison’s Nursery has been at the forefront of spreading new clones here and there. The University of Georgia and University of Florida have made significant introductions. Stephen Stringer, USDA Poplarville, Mississippi has introduced some and we are blessed with a number of his advanced selections in our trials. While mailorder is about the only way to get many of the uncommon types, there are plenty of local retail nurseries that carry a variety or two. Here’s our current list of varieties in our planting.
As for pruning and training, there are plenty of fact sheets on the web that describe the ins and outs of pruning muscadines. There are a myriad of ways to train muscadines. We have chosen to go with a three wire system with plants about 20′ apart on rows 15′ apart. In our system, the cross arms are at 5’6″ which is perhaps a bit shorter than the average Texan but gives kids in the SFA Gardens Educational Program a chance for an easier harvest. Vines should be trained to a single trunk to simplify care and culture.
Insects and diseases have not been a problem but wasp nests can be an issue. Snakes often enjoy perching on the branches to grab a bird or two. Deer are a horrific problem for young plants and in our case we are putting a chicken wire tube around the developing plant. We don’t like this but this is state property and even though our campus is concealed carry, we can’t take care of the problem the Texas way.
I’ll close with a little story here. Back in the 1980s, I used to have a peach orchard on Highway 7 near Center, Texas. “Creech’s Peaches” sat in a good spot for a roadside market. While the 3500 peach trees was the focus, I did have other fruits and I farmed and swapped a few vegetables. A dozen persimmons, that many pears, and a small 30-vine single trellis wire muscadine vineyard with 15 varieties planted was just a part of the mix. When the muscadine were ripe starting in September, I would eat them every day for about a month, share them with friends and also sell a few hundred lbs. on the Houston market via my broker. One year, I picked more than 800 lbs., packed them and set them in the cooler at the peach shed and called my broker who said she’d pick them up the next morning on her way to Houston. I kind of forgot about them until a few weeks later I noticed a strong fragrance in the air near the barn. When I opened the door to the cooler, I realized that the grapes were still there and the crates rumbling, rocking and rolling. It was a fermentation party. I called a old timer who ran a famous poultry and hardware supply store in town and told him my problem. “That’s no problem, bring them to me.” Well, I loaded them up in my truck and he had me back up to a barn across the road. A couple of fifty five gallon drums had been cleaned and we’re ready to go. There were some friends working a big gunny sack of potatoes into slices. The grapes were dumped into the drum, along with the potatoes and some other “important stuff”. The drums were covered and kind of sealed. For the next few weeks you could smell the store before you got there. I got a call a month or so later and was invited to a tasting. The wine (?) had been bottled and it was a bronzy muddy mixture and if you let sit, the sediment piled up in the bottom of the bottle. That’s the “good stuff” I learned. I also learned we needed to share the bottles with friends because our product would go bad pretty quick. I was thinking, gee, it’s already kind of bad. How bad can it get? Still, it was a good evening. There weren’t any hallucinations. While my knees were a little weak, no jake leg symptoms developed and I left cheerful that the grapes were not wasted.
The best time to visit the vineyard at the Jimmy Hinds Park would be mid-September to near frost. We don’t have a plan to market the fruit. We intend to share it with our visitors, school age kids, faculty and staff. Come and visit!