Growings On: Muscadines are a popular fruit in the Southeast

Roger Gates 

From late summer into fall, Southerners start looking for muscadines — a popular grape native to the Southeastern U.S. Selections run from the dark purple, thick-skinned traditional muscadine to a light, golden-green variety. According to North Carolina Extension Horticulture Information Leaflet “Muscadine Grapes in the Home Garden,” muscadines have a high degree of tolerance to pests and diseases. The fruit has a distinct fruity or "musky" aroma, while the juice by itself is sweet with a light taste and aroma. The fruit is very popular with native Southerners for making into wine, pies and jellies.

Muscadines grapes, (Vitis rotundifolia, or alternatively, Muscadiniana rotundifolia) are often referred to as scuppernongs. Muscadine is native to the Southeastern United States and has been cultured for more than 400 years. Native Americans preserved muscadines as dried fruit long before the Europeans inhabited this continent. As early as 1565, Capt. John Hawkins reported that the Spanish settlements in Florida made large quantities of muscadine wine. For much of the history of the crop, varieties were simply selections from the wild. The first recognized muscadine cultivar was a bronze selection, found before 1760 by Isaac Alexander in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. It was first known as the "Big White Grape," and was later named scuppernong after the area in which it was found. With time, the name scuppernong became generic with all bronze muscadines, regardless of actual variety name. However, this is incorrect nomenclature, since scuppernong is only one of many cultivars of muscadine grapes. Bullis and its variants (bullace, bullet grape, bull grape) are very old names for dark-fruited muscadines.

Soon, muscadine growers and consumers will able to consider a new red variety. The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ muscadine grape team, led by horticulture Professor Patrick J. Conner, developed a variety of muscadine for those who prefer the sweet taste of a berry with limited muscadine flavor.

“The unusual red color of this berry really makes it stand out,” Conner said. “But the tender skin and crisp flesh of this variety are what truly make it unique. The texture of this variety is a marked change from traditional muscadines, which are often known for having tough skins and a soft pulp.”

UGA has the oldest muscadine breeding program in the U.S. The program began in 1909, and since then, it has released over 30 cultivars and counting. The program focuses on continued improvement of the muscadine grape by developing new cultivars that satisfy the needs of growers and the demands on consumers. The UGA muscadine breeding program works to create new cultivars that combine large berry size with perfect flowers, expand the harvest season with earlier and later ripening dates, and produce berries with dry stem scars, crisp flesh and tender skins.

Researchers found RubyCrisp to be a good fit for pick-your-own operations and home gardens because of its distinctive taste and texture and excellent productivity. Unfortunately, commercial production is not a good fit for this specialized berry, because it often cracks with rough handling. However, RubyCrisp vines can flourish in the backyards of at-home cultivators looking to try the newest muscadine.

RubyCrisp originated in Tifton as a result of a cross between Supreme and Tara varieties. Supreme produces black berries with exceptional size and firmness. Tara produces bronze berries with dry pedicel scars that ripen early in the muscadine harvest season. In 2011, the RubyCrisp vine was chosen because of its large berry size, flower type and outstanding flavor.

Original RubyCrisp vines were tested on UGA experiment plots in Tifton and at a commercial vineyard in Wray. Researchers discovered that given the large berry size and high production potential of RubyCrisp, growers may need to limit vine fruitfulness by increasing the distance between fruiting spurs or thinning the crop so that the vine is not weakened by maturing excessive crops.

UGA researchers also found that heavy rainfall can lead to fruit cracking. RubyCrisp has a mid-season harvest date around Aug. 21 in South Georgia and has perfect flowers so it does not need a pollinator.

“Because further study is needed to explore the optimum environment for producing this vine, especially its cold hardiness, we suggest growers in northern muscadine regions refrain from planting large numbers of RubyCrisp until more data is collected,” Conner said.

A list of nurseries licensed to propagate RubyCrisp muscadine is available by contacting Conner at pconner@uga.edu.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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