I was walking with my dog, Petunia, this afternoon when I saw a vine growing over the side of an urban shed in my neighborhood. It has round dark blue berries. “Is that grape?” I wondered. I snapped some cell phone photos of the leaves and berries and then went to my apartment to cross reference them in two books: Steve Brill’s field guide, “Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places,” and Sam Thayer’s, “The Forager’s Harvest.”
In Steve’s book, I learned that wild grapes, Vitis spp., do have a poisonous lookalike: it’s called Canada moonseed, Menispermum canadense. The USDA’s range maps show Canada Moonseed growing only in the eastern half of North America, so it was unlikely to be a possibility here. But since Canada Moonseed berries can reportedly be fatal, I wanted to be extra sure, so I looked at clear photos of their leaves and read up to learn how to distinguish them from edible grapes.
Both wild grape and Canada moonseed are vines with round, dark blue-black berries in clusters, and have alternate leaves with three to more lobes in a palmate shape that resembles maple leaves. How to tell them apart? Sam Thayer points out that Canada moonseed leaves are not toothed on the margins, but grape leaves are. Also, moonseed leaves are hairy when young. And grape vines usually have tendrils (moonseed vines don’t). And, the fruit of moonseed has just one seed, whereas wild grapes have multiple seeds inside.
Based on that criteria, all signs pointed to edible. I went back to the vine and picked some clusters. I noticed that the berries tasted very bland compared to grocery store grapes. I saw a homeless dude rummaging through some recycling cans for glass bottles nearby. “Hey man, you can eat these,” I told him. “Oh? Those are edible?” he asked, coming closer to have a look, seemingly a little wary. “Yes, and I’m eating them,” I said, and I chewed some to prove it. “These are good,” he said. “Thanks.”
Updated and edited to add: They are probably Parthenocissus tricuspidata instead, also an edible berry in the grape family. Thanks Charlie Davis for the info in the comments!
*Herbal Medicine 101 – Intro to Medicine Making on Sunday, Dec. 2.
*Dreamcatcher Workshop on Thursday, Dec. 6.
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