Gardening Articles: Health :: Health

Of Muscadines and Scuppernongs

by Suzanne DeJohn

Remember, you heard it first here. The next new food fad? My money's on muscadines. Pretty soon you'll see muscadine tablets, juices, extracts, and more. Why? Perhaps you've heard of the so-called French Paradox -- the conundrum that the French have a much lower incidence of heart disease than would be expected considering their rich cuisine? (How can they eat those delicious cream sauces and decadent pastries and still be healthy?) It's all about the wine, or at least that's the current thinking. More specifically, it's about resveratrol, a potent antioxidant found in red wine. And although some of us are happy sipping an occasional merlot -- for its health benefits, of course -- researchers have been looking for other, non-alcoholic sources of resveratrol, and they've found it in our own backyard: the muscadine grape.

Muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia) are native to the southeastern U.S., where they've been cultivated for hundreds of years. Unlike other Vitis species, muscadines thrive in the heat and humidity. They don't like the cold though, and suffer in regions where winter temperatures linger below 10 degrees F. The vines are vigorous, reaching 100 feet in length in the wild, so growing muscadines isn't for the faint of heart, or the faint of trellis. The fruits are round and 1 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter -- "about the size of a hog's eye" according to locals.

Muscadine fruit is borne in loose clusters. Unlike table grapes, muscadines have a thick, tough skin and contain hard seeds. When I first moved here a farmer's market vendor gave me one to try, and, trying to be polite, I ate the whole thing. Now I know that most people nip a hole in the skin, then suck out the pulp and spit out the seeds.

The fruits range in color from light greenish bronze to purple to almost black. Light-colored muscadines are often called scuppernongs. The origin of this name is sketchy. One account states that a vine bearing light-colored fruits was discovered and propagated by cuttings. (The vine was probably a sport -- a unique plant arising from a spontaneous mutation -- of a dark-fruited plant.) During the 17th and 18th centuries, additional cuttings were placed into production around a small town named Scuppernong in Washington County, North Carolina, hence the common name.

Today, the light-colored muscadines grown commercially are cultivated varieties, rather than cuttings from this original plant, but most people still call them scuppernongs to distinguish them from their dark-fruited cousins.

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