Introduction: Wild Grape Jelly and More

There's something infinitely satisfying about gathering food from the wild. I guess part of it comes from an instinctive drive left over from our hunter/gatherer days, and part of it from the lazy man in each of us that likes getting something for "free", without having to work or pay for it. No matter the reason why, we try and gather as much of our food as we can. It's food we don't have to grow ourselves, and it will often thrive in conditions (both soil and climate) that domesticated plants cannot. Besides, it's a great family outing that the kids especially enjoy.

Of weeds and plants that we find growing near us, the wild grapes are one of the most delicious and useful. Although you can pick and eat a few of them straight from the vine, we tend to turn them into a syrup or jelly that we can use throughout the year, on bread, pancakes, ice-cream, etc. It's sweet and tart at the same time, very tasty, and of a deep purple color. You can also eat the leaves, and use various parts of the plant for medicine, dye, and baskets.

Follow these steps to find and process your own wild grapes.

For more information on our gathering endeavors, click here.

Step 1: Gathering

There are several species of Wild Grape (or Canyon Grape) found in the Southwest (from Oregon down to California and across to Texas), and many more throughout the world. A couple of the scientific names of the former are Vitis arizonica and Vitis californica.

They can grow in a variety of habitats at elevations between 2,000 and 7,500 feet, often along streams or arroyos. The vine will usually climb up something like a tree or fence, and can reach 60 ft tall.

The leaves are dark green and heart shaped. They have a serrated edge. The vine is woody and messy looking, as it grows all over the place.

The plant will flower from Spring to Summer. The flowers are green and very small. They grow in clusters that droop down (like a bunch of grapes). The flowers will then turn into a small fruit that starts off green and ripens to a dark purple.

Birds especially love this grape, so make sure you locate some vines before the fruit are ripe, so you can watch and pick them as soon as they turn deep purple. It's OK to pick some that are green, but the vast majority want to be ripe.

We now have several vines located. When the grapes are ripe (at the beginning of August here), we go out and collect. We take several grocery bags and can fill them all within an hour of picking. The kids help, but they were 4 and 1 last August, so didn't contribute a huge amount! Both boys come away with purple mouths, face and fingers, even though we try not to let them eat too many!

Step 2: Grape Juice

The instructions in the following two steps are for 3 lbs of cleaned grapes. Adjust the recipe according to how much you pick.
  1. Take the grapes off the stem and wash them well.
  2. Put your harvest in a saucepan and add 1/2 cup of water.
  3. Crush the grapes with a potato masher. Don't use your fingers, as a lot of juice soaked into your skin can cause a burning sensation.
  4. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Strain and squeeze the mixture through a jelly bag, cheese cloth or similar fabric.
  6. Leave the juice overnight and then pour it out very gently, so that the tartrate ( a grainy substance) is left behind on the bottom and sides. Tartrate can cause sore throat and mouth.
You will get roughly 1 cup of juice for each pound of fruit.

Step 3: Syrup or Jelly

Now that you have your grape juice, you can turn it into either syrup or jelly. We tend to go with the former, as it is really wonderful poured over ice-cream or pancakes and uses less sugar. If you want to make jelly, increase the sugar quantity to 4 cups and add 1/2 a bottle of liquid fruit pectin as soon as the mixture comes to the boil. Or you can keep the sugar low and use a pectin made for low-sugar jellies.
  1. Put the 3 cups of juice into a large pan.
  2. Add 1/4 cup of rhus or lemon juice, and 1 1/2 cups of sugar. Mix well.
  3. Bring to a rolling boil and boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
  4. Remove from heat and skim off any foam.
While the fruit is ripe, we like to pick a bunch and then can it, so it'll last us the year. To can the syrup or jelly:
  1. Submerge your cans and lids in water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat and let sit for a while.
  2. Pour the hot syrup or jelly into the sterilized masonry jars up to 1/8 inch from the top. Wipe the rim of the jars.
  3. Place the lids on the jars and finger tighten.
  4. Put the jars on a rack inside a large pot. Fill with water to at least 1 inch over the top of the jars. Put the lid on the pot.
  5. Bring the water to a boil. Boil it for 15 minutes if you're using pint jars, and 20 minutes if using quart jars. Make sure the temperature does not drop during this time.
  6. Let the water cool a little, then remove the jars and place them on a cooling rack.
Note on altitude: the higher elevation you are, the longer you will need to boil your cans. If you are 1,000 to 3,000 feet add 5 minutes to a recipe time. Between 3,000 and 6,000 feet add 10 minutes. Over 6,000 add 15 minutes.

Step 4: Other Uses

Jelly and syrup aren't the only uses for wild grapes of course. It is an amazing plant. Here are a few more ideas.
  • Various groups of Indians used to dry wild grapes and then use them as a flavoring, ground up.
  • The Pomo Indians of California would use the vines for basket weaving.
  • The young leaves can be boiled and eaten, much like spinach.
  • The fruit can be used as a purple dye. And the leaves can make a yellow dye.
  • Medicinally, grapes are excellent for all kinds of remedies. One example is to boil the leaves and use them as a poultice for open injuries.
  • Vitamin pill. Wild grapes are high in B1, B6, C, manganese, potassium, antioxidants, resveratrol and probably more!
  • The vines, if cut, are a source of water if you are in a survival situation. Chewing the leaves will quench your thirst too.
  • The grapes make a fruity, fairly intense wine.
  • Vines planted around your fence-line will rapidly crawl all over the fence and make it harder for predators to get through.

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