A cluster of ripe grapes on a riverbank grapevine.

Flower clusters on a riverbank grapevine. Photo by Michigan State University.

Vitis riparia leaves with tendrils.

A riverbank grapevine climbing the trunk of a tree.

By Joseph Mooney
Native Plant of the Week: Riverbank Grape, Vitis riparia
Did you know there are at least 30 different species of native grape (genus Vitis) in North America? There’s probably one in your backyard right now, snaking through a nearby shrub or tree.
The most common species of native grape in the continental U.S., and the one most likely to be in your Michigan garden, is Vitis riparia, or riverbank grapevine. The species name “riparia” refers to its typical riverbank habitat. But V. riparia grows in lots of different sites and soils. You may encounter old riverbank grapevines as much as 2 inches in diameter hanging from tree branches high above and showing their characteristic shreddy bark. Leaf shape can vary dramatically, making positive ID challenging.
According to several accounts, many Native American tribes used the vines for basketry. In its publication “Culturally Significant Plants” the United States Department of Agriculture reports that indigenous people used the juice of V. riparia to treat coughs and cold, and applied a mixture made from the leaves to sprains and bruises.

Clusters of Vitis riparia grapes growing on a vine near the Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

A section of riverbank grapevine showing the plant’s classic shredded bark.

Leaves of Vitis riparia growing on a vine near the Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

Fresh grape leaves, including those of Vitis riparia, can be used as a wrap to cook or steam seafood.

Of course one thinks of wine when talking about grapes, and our Vitis have quite a fascinating history. The phylloxera louse, introduced inadvertently to Europe in the nineteenth century, decimated the continent’s vineyards of Vitis vinifera grapevines. The European wine industry was saved when botanists discovered they could graft Vitis vinifera grapevines onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock from Vitis riparia and other native North American grapes.
Apart from their role in the vineyard, our native grapes are under-appreciated for culinary experimentation. The juice of ripe V. riparia grapes is sour but delicious and complex. It’s said to taste better after a frost (no personal experience). The leaves can be used fresh as a sort of wrap for grilled seafood. They impart a subtle citrusy note to the dish. And of course the pickled leaves can be stuffed with an almost limitless variety of ingredients.
Next week: We retire the native plant of the week posts for the rest of the year and bring back our invasive plant of the week series.