Pull It or Plant It: Mustang Grape
LU: Call me an optimist, a Pollyanna, or just a dope who’s cup is so full it’s spilling onto my shoes: I love plants that grow anywhere without fuss or permission. We gardeners take pride in our power to manipulate the natural habits of plants, but mustang grape reminds me often that I am the weakling in the relationship. It grows in any kind of soil and can handle really wet areas yet is pretty darn drought hardy. Did I mention it grows really fast?
KB: Mustang grapes are a mess. They grow tenaciously and can engulf (and shade and sometimes kill) entire trees. Pay attention along Texas highways, and you’ll see what I mean. If you’re planting one on purpose to cover a trellis or arbor, that structure better be built like a brick (ahem) outhouse — not to mention that the ground underneath will be covered in dark smears when fallen grapes stain concrete and look rather like animal poop.
VALUE (TO HUMANS) AS AN EDIBLE NATIVE PLANT
LU: I love green grape pie and delicious pickled grapes, and maybe I could swallow a very small glass of mustang wine. (Disclaimer: As an Oregonian by birth and raised on more delicious grape varieties and wines, I might be fudging a bit on that last claim.) I like the grapes raw when they are dark and ripe, and for some reason the slight itchy burn on my tongue and in my mouth doesn’t bother me a bit.
KB: Mustang grapes have leathery, astringent skins that irritate the inside of your mouth. Once peeled, the fruit is, at best, tart and, at worst, bitter. I admit they are delicious when harvested green and prepared in spicy brine (like olives). And I imagine that after the addition of a generous amount of sugar and a long fermentation period, the flavor must be improved.
LU: Vitis mustangensis will feed all the birds, bees and mammals that can reach it; it provides wonderful shelter for critters to nest in; and it won’t be taken down by deer or hungry caterpillars. People complain about messy smooshed grapes, but you know who isn’t bothered? Bugs. Butterflies and moths, in particular, love grape juice! Even bats sip that sweet nectar in the night. Bring the jungle to your own backyard!
KB: I know, I know — everything loves grapes: songbirds, game birds, and small mammals like raccoons and possums. You see grape seed in the scat of many wild animals when grapes are in season (there we go again with the poop). These animals will be spreading the grape seed all over your property, which will solve the problem of having too much time on your hands. Now you can pull grape seedlings … endlessly.
ON THE OTHER HAND …
LU: It will swallow your kids whole if they stand still for too long (but what kid stays that still anyway?). And you may have to invest in a chainsaw to trim it. Mustang grape is a personality test in a way: If you take the grape challenge, your neighbors will never speak to you again, but family and friends will know you can tackle anything life throws at you. Just don’t slip on the juice and fall to the ground; you might be buried by your own ambition.
KB: Maybe mustang grape will see us through the zombie apocalypse. It would do a better job than some of our other native edibles (peppergrass, anyone?). It can also be beautiful grown on a stout, sturdy arbor and pruned rather aggressively. And only the female plants bear fruit (mustang grapes are “dioecious,” or have separate male and female plants). If you don’t want the mess, seek out a male by observing a plant’s fruiting or nonfruiting tendencies.