Urban Grapes: Wild Fall Food

A wall of grapes in the urban wilderness.

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.”

I’m guessing that this variety is probably Vitis riparia, the most common one found in the United States, because the USDA plants database shows it present here in Multnomah County.

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!

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8 thoughts on “Urban Grapes: Wild Fall Food

  1. This is in the grape family, but not a grape (Vitis sp.) at all. Rather it’s a variety of Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata). Notice the bright red pedicels and the swollen disks of tendrils (visible on the white wall in the background of the first photo). A Google search on ‘Parthenocissus tricuspidata fruit’ will display some photos for comparison. A list of plants within a state will not cover species occurring predominantly as cultivated plants.

  2. I freeze wild grapes, get sweeter, then suck and chew up a bunch of them off their branches for seed benefits and skins for resveratrol, tasty too

    Highest resv. content is in [my yard’s] Japanese knotweed. I eat prepared sprouts and young shoots, lately dried older stems for decoction, smooth and woody flavor, and dried roots also, more pungent though so I mix. How do I make a glyceric: dry or fresh roots, etc. Is pharmaceutical grade glyc. acceptable? Resveratrol amazing variety of benefits, worth researching.

    Culturing white pine and a-c-vinegar. Any best tasting evergreen recipes., and can I infuse/decoct pine stems stripped of needles?

    Thanks so much, love the site.

  3. Although we have no wild Vitis grapes in the UK, we do have Oregon grapes (Mahonia aquifolium) widely planted in urban environments. Do you make much use of them? I find them rather seedy for any use other than jelly.

    I remember gathering some delicious shagbark hickory nuts (Carya ovata) in Salem. Got any of those in Portland? If not – get some!

    Good luck with harvesting those feral foods that people overlook.

  4. Give a man a grape, he will for a day. Teach a man how to identify edible wild grapes, he will feed himself forever…(when they are in season). Way to go, my favorite forager!

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