Living in Houston, TX does not invoke images of the wild and untamed world but every now and then one does find a surprise. Most often it is seeing wild life (feral pigs, deer, snakes, rabbits and alligators) while biking through the reservoir. A few days ago while riding my mountain bike along a less frequented bike trail along Mason Creek I came upon another surprise, wild grapes (Mustang Grapes – Vitis mustangensis).
I have seen wild grapes vines in addition to wild roses growing over trees and shrubs during my bike rides, but I never looked that closely. The only reason I even realized that there was some type of fruit ripening was that there were “fruit skins” discarded on the pavement, an indicator that birds, specifically Mocking Birds were eating wild fruit.
I stopped where there was the largest concentration of discarded fruit skin on the path and looked closer at the tree line a couple of yards away. I saw nothing until I walked closer to the tree line, one eye on the vines and another on the ground for snakes. As I got closer, I saw hundreds of bunches of deep purple, almost black grapes hanging on the vines from the ground all the way to the tops of the trees.
Combined with this primordial fear of snakes is our human desire to live so I confirmed that the grapes were in fact attached to grape vines with leaves and tentatively ate one of the grapes. The flavor was tart, very acidic, with minimal sweetness, but the essence of grapes was present. I waited for a few minutes to see whether I was going to double over with cramps or break out in a cold sweat, sure signs that I had consumed something poisonous, but I was fine. I ate a few more grapes and only then did I noticed that there was a slight tingling on my lips and tongue due to the high acidity.
At the time all I knew was that there were wild / feral grapes growing in abundance in the tree line along Mason Creek. Growing up in the northeast I initially thought that these grapes could be Concord Grapes, but I knew that Houston, TX is too far south for this variety. I then considered that these grapes were domesticated grapes that had gone feral (wild) from a hedgerow or old vineyard from a farming / ranch homestead from a time long before Katy, TX was just another suburb of Houston, TX.
I rode back to the house, a quick four mile bike ride, pulled out my backpack, gathered some plastic grocery bags and packed my camera and I rode back to where I found the grapes. It took some effort for the grapes do not grow in large bunches, but I eventually picked between 15 – 20 pounds of grapes with one eye on the ground for snakes.
I did not even come close to picking all of the grapes that I could reach and there was so much more beyond my reach. While I was picking the grapes, I would notice the Mocking Birds to swoop in, pick a grape and quickly fly away. I am sure that they were not pleased with me finding their secret stash. My thought was Mr. Mocking Bird, you have eaten my garden grapes, so now I am going to eat your grapes.
Back home I researched the grapes that I had picked and based upon the location, tartness, acidity, color, growing style and the underside color of the leaf I was able to determine that I had picked Mustang Grapes (Vitis mustangensis), a variety of grapes that indigenous to East Texas. Between the acidity, toughness of the skin and the fruit full of seeds I knew that Mustang Grapes have no place on the table to be eaten fresh. I did know that I was going to enjoy making jams and jellies from the grapes. Who would have thought that among the densely populated suburbs of Katy, TX that wild grapes that are growing among the trees along the roads and bayous.
Note of caution: Due to the high acid content of Mustang Grapes it is recommended to wear gloves when picking and to limit the amount of grapes that are eaten fresh. I followed neither of these cautions, but nonetheless, it is suggested.