Mastodons, the Stewards of Wild Pleistocene Vinyards

I couldn’t find an illustration of mastodons yanking down grape vines from tree tops.

Grape vines co-evolved with Pleistocene megafauna.  Today, they thrive and produce fruit most abundantly when humans prune them aggressively.  Grape vines do not produce fruit on old wood, so pruning is necessary for them to bear.  In North America before man colonized the continent, mastodons were the stewards of wild Pleistocene vinyards.  Grape vines covered many square miles of forest, especially during warm wet interglacials and interstadials.   When Europeans felled virgin timber they also removed century old grape vines with 12 inch trunks–a rare site today but something mastodons must have encountered frequently.  Young grape vines will colonize second growth and oftentimes reestablish themselves as a dominant component of the local flora.  They are resilient plants adapted to being ripped apart and chewed upon by beasts such as mastodons and ground sloths.  A herd of mastodons chomping down on a grape vine wouldn’t necessarily stamp it out of existence.  Grapes not only produce seed-bearing fruit on new shoots, but  they can also spread vegetatively.  Vines growing on the ground get covered with leaves and forest litter.  The buried vines then sprout new roots and new vines can spring up quite a distance from the parent.   A mastodon could rip apart a vine, carry it or toss it many yards away, and if the vine got covered by leaves and moist dirt, it wouldl survive as a new individual.  So even if no animals eat the fruit and spread the seed in their dung, grape vines will still spread like an unstoppable alien plant from a science fiction movie.  By spreading vegetatively, they can even survive late spring freezes which prevents any fruit production. 

These grape vines sprouted from roots originating from vines extending from another grape vine that I’m growing on a fence.   Pine straw shedded from nearby trees covered grape vines growing on the ground.  Under the litter they sprouted more roots and then more vines.  The city sent me a registered letter declaring this a code violation.  It doesn’t seem like the government has the right to tell people how big plants they grow on their private property can get.

This is the after picture.  I did clear up the contested area, but it felt like I was fighting a plant monster from a science fiction movie.

It’s no surprise that grape vine material was one of the plants found in fossil mastodon dung at the Aucilla River site in north Florida.  Mastodons ate a wide variety of vegetation, and grape is a comparatively easy plant to digest because it is adapted to survive via rapid vegetative growth rather than poisonous defense.   There’s little evidence of grape in Pleistocene pollen studies.  Grape pollen is not widely dispersed, so when it is found, it’s assumed to have occurred locally, next to the actual site.  Grape pollen was found to be abundant at the Sandy Creek Run site on Warner Robins Air Force Base near Macon, Georgia, but only for the last 7,000 years.  It’s absent at that site before then.  (The site has a pollen record from the present to 13,000 BP and from 25,000 BP-30,000 BP.)

Five species of wild grape grow in Georgia today and likely grew here during the Pleistocene, being abundant during interstadials and interglacials but limited to local relic status during cold dry stadials. 

Summer Grape, pigeon grape–Vitis aestivalis

Supposed to be common in Georgia, but I’ve never seen one here.  They resemble concord grapes in appearance.

Possum grape–Vitis baileyana

Supposed to be rare in state, but it’s the only one other than muscadine I’ve ever seen here.  They’re a small black grape. 

River grape–Vitis riperia

Considered uncommon in state.  Another blue grape similar in appearance to Concord.

Muscadine grape–Vitis rotundifolia

Very abundant in state.  I can almost always find this species growing wild in any second growth or overgrown vacant lot.  Or my backyard where this sprouted up under an oak tree.  The wild variety that grows in Georgia is a purple grape when ripe.  Scuppernongs are a greenish/brown variety of muscadine, originally found growing along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina by early European explorers (Giovanni Verrazzano in 1504 and Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585).  Cultivated muscadines are my favorite grape to eat, but I don’t ever buy them in chain supermarkets–they’re always picked too early and have no flavor.  Instead I buy them at fruit stands or eat the ones I grow myself.

These are my two cultivated scuppernong vines.  They’re 20 years old.

Muscadines have tough skins and seeds but they’re the sweetest grapes and by far have the best and most distinctive flavor.  Most grapes sold in the store, such as Thomson seedless and Flame Red, are bland by comparison.

Four varieties of muscadines grow in my yeard.  Wild muscadines sprout naturally.  One of the vines I planted is the original scuppernong variety which is excellent for a wild grape but not nearly as good as the improved variety that I planted next to it.  I can’t recall the name because it has been so long since I planted it.  The latter is bigger, sweeter, and not as tough.  Last winter I planted a variety known as the giant black muscadine but it hasn’t produced fruit yet.

A cultivated variety of scuppernong is on the left, the original wild kind is on the right.

Experts say muscadines have no pests but this is not true.  Yellow jackets and wasps will destroy about 1/3 rd of the fruit every year.  Some years my vines have produced over a gallon of grapes, not counting ones eaten by yellow jackets.  When picking, one must be careful not to grab a grape in which a stinging insect has burrowed.

Note the blue-winged wasp (Scolia dubia?) feasting on one.

I made good scuppernong wine once.  It was dry, not sweet.  I put a teaspoon of cinnamon in one bottle and let it age for a few years for the best spiced wine I ever drank.  The muscadine wine sold in stores is terrible–usually sickeningly sweet and harsh.   Young grape leaves are also a gourmet edible.  Add 20 young grape leaves to stew with beef for a unique fruity but not sweet flavor.  They can also be stuffed with rice, ground beef, or mushrooms.

Fox grape, winter grape, chicken grape, frost grape–Vitis vulpina

Considered an occasional grape in the south.  It’s another blue grape like Concord.  It doesn’t become sweet until frost when it begins to decompose.

Most supermarket grapes are descendents of crosses between some of the above mentioned grapes and varieties of European grapes–Vitis vinifera.  Worldwide, all grapes are grown on American grape rootstocks which are resistant to a disease that wiped out Vitis vinifera rootstocks.

Peppervine and Virginia Creeper are also in the grape family.  The latter is a tenacious vine too.

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5 Responses to “Mastodons, the Stewards of Wild Pleistocene Vinyards”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    I’ve often thought of the effect the extinct megafauna had on the landscape. If only.

    There’s a trail that I hike every year or two on Morrow Mountain (one of our tiny, outlier ancient mountains far away from the Appalachians). And I seem to hike this trail at the perfect time because I always run into wild grapes. I have to reach up to get them, but they’ve been there every time I’ve hiked the mountain. Very sweet grapes. Muscadines, of course.

    I suppose you make wine from yours?

    The mastadons, mammoths, and sloths probably had the biggest effect on the forests and grasslands. We’ll never know, really, what things were like when they were here. Some trees and plants that are unknown or rare these days may have been common when the big mammals were shouldering their ways through the landscape. Every once in a while I’ll run into an Osage orange tree. That had to be one that was spread far and wide by the big vegetarians. Now you rarely see them anywhere.

    • markgelbart Says:

      Osage orange is one of the items found in fossil mastodon dung at the Aucilla River site. The Osage orange found today in the east are descendents of ones transplanted by man. Osage orange disappeared over most of its range following the extinction of the mastodon.

      I did make 5 gallons of scuppernong wine once. As I wrote, I added 1 teaspoon of cinnamon to one bottle for the best spiced wine I ever drank. But the muscadine wine sold in liquor stores is terrible.

  2. Mark L. Says:

    Darn Mark, you spoiled my vision of mastadons distributing osage oranges in ancient history by my walking area (1600 feet on top of what we call a mountain). Just plain old people, huh. I guess the ‘chinese orange’ next to it was put there too.
    Mark L.

    • markgelbart Says:

      Mastodons did distribute osage orange before the beasts became extinct. After the mastodons were gone Osage orange died out over most of its former range until people began planting them as hedgerows.

  3. Wesley Equality Tyler Says:

    Hey your small grapes may be Vitis vulpina (commonly known as frost grape,[2] winter grape[1][2] or fox grape), have a google search. great blog BTW

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