That I was clutching my garden’s last tomatoes should have given me a clue to the time of year.
But then, I walked past some wild grape vines on the way back to my house, and the beckoning aroma of wild grapes stopped me in my tracks. OK, I thought. It’s fall.
Not just in my yard. Grapes like hot dry weather and we’ve been parched since the summer solstice. Other crops may have wilted. Wild grapes are clustering.
“There’s an amazing crop of them this year,” said Ken Elkins, director of Education at the Bent of the River nature center in Southbury, owned by Audubon Connecticut.
People call their smell foxy and the common name for these wild grapes — Vitis labrusca — is fox grapes.
I have never smelled a fox, but I somehow doubt any trickster, vixen or kits smells like that wild perfume. Others call it earthy, but that doesn’t capture it either. Other adjectives — musky, aromatic, evocative — will have to fill in.
And there is the taste — tart and tart again. You suck on them, spit out the seeds, skin and pulp and the sour taste stays on your tongue. When you are a kid and don’t know better, you try another.
And there are long grape vines. You can swing on them to ape Tarzan. Again, this is best done as a kid, not as a 69-year-old with bad knees and too much weight.
Wild grapes have been a part of the eastern North Atlantic landscape for centuries. When Leif Erickson explored the New World sometime around 1000 AD, the wild grapes growing there made him call it Vineland.
Likewise, when British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold rounded Cape Cod in 1602, he sighted an island covered with wild grapevines. He named it after his daughter and now ex-presidents summer on gracious estates on Martha’s Vineyard.
Connecticut’s flag and seal have three grapevines, each with three grape clusters.
This, however, has nothing to do with anything foxy.
Col. George Fenwick, one of the founders of the Saybrook colony in 1639, had a seal with 13 vines. Other colonists just appropriated it and pruned the number down to three. Depending on what jurisdiction you’re in, those three refer to the first three colonies in Connecticut — Hartford, New Haven and Saybrook — or the first three established towns — Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor.
However, adding grapevines to the state’s motto — Qui Transtulit Sustinet, (loosely translated, “He Who Transplanted Still Sustains”) — was a nice touch of symbolism for a growing colony.
“Grapes symbolize a fruitful earth,” said State Historian Walter Woodward. “And they are producers of wine, one of the great pleasures of the earth.”
However, Connecticut’s wild grapes don’t produce that pleasure.
“They are just a little too astringent,” said Washington da Silva, an assistant scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. “They are not good for making wine.”
It wasn’t until the 19th century that farmers raised grapes commercially in the state. The great boom in Connecticut wine making, using European grape varietals, began in the 1970s.
Today, da Silva said, there are 41 vineyards in Connecticut in all eight counties. There are three officially recognized wine-growing areas in the state — the Western Highlands, the Eastern Highland and the Southeastern New England region, which stretches along the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
The wild grapes do, however, make great jelly, if you pick enough to simmer and fill a jelly jar with.
And they are fruitful to wild things needing a late summer meal.
That includes any berry-eating bird — a group that includes robins, orioles, catbirds, cardinals, mockingbirds, chickadees, wild turkeys and scarlet tanagers.
“Mammals eat them,” Ekins of the Bent of the River nature center said. “I think wood turtles and box turtles would eat them.”
And some birds — cardinals, eastern towhees in particular — peel off the outer strip of bark from the grapevines to build their nests.
“It’s perfect for that,” said Amanda Branson, director of operations and finance for the Northwest Connecticut Land Conservancy. “It’s woody, but it’s very pliable.”
One species that hate wild grapes, or rather, wild grape vines, is the Homo sapiens suburbani — the suburban land owner. The vines grow tall and thick, up to the crowns of trees. Some humans see that and industriously tear the vines down.
“People think any plant they don’t like is an invasive,” Branson said. “But grape vines have been here a long time.”