Harvesting and Using Wild Grape Leaves

There are many species of wild grape in my area and the grapes they produce are small, few, and not very tasty. Their leaves, however, are large, abundant, and delicious. I like to gather them in late spring and early summer over the course of a few weeks and then ferment them in brine to use all year.

All species of grape are edible, though some are more or less palatable than others. I have noticed at least two different species in my area, though I don’t know their specific names. I find them both to be equally tasty. They have a sort of sweet-tart flavor reminiscent of the fruit, but not as intense and a little more “green”. Grapes grow just about everywhere and you likely also have some tasty native species growing near you. If you grow domestic grapes for fruit, you may also harvest some of the leaves from those domesticated species if you like the flavor.

The first thing though is to make sure that the leaves you are harvesting are, in fact, grape leaves. There some similar vining plants that are not edible or are even toxic.

Positive Identification of Grape Vine

  • Grape likes sunshine and moisture, but not too much of either. Grapevines are found along wood edges, growing up fences and climbing over woodpiles.

    A wild grapevine on my woodpile.
  • The plant is a woody vine, though young plants may not yet have developed a woody stem. It climbs by means of Y-shaped tendrils. Look for these y-shaped tendrils along the vines, especially at the end, for positive identification.

    Note the Y-shaped tendrils.
  • Grape leaves are serrated and lobed but are not divided. So when you look at the leaf, it is all one piece. Each leaf has three sections. These three sections may or may not be very distinct, depending on species, but they are all connected by leaf tissue, never on a separate stem. Contrast both Virginia creeper and poison ivy: each leaf is divided into individual leaflets with its own stem- no good for wrapping around a filling and also not good for eating in general.

    Can you see the Y-shaped tendril here?
  • ¬†Grapevines often have fruit or flowers in grape clusters. The size and color of the individual fruit or flowers may vary based on species and season, but the unique grape-like cluster is universal. However, many vines produce fruits and flowers in clusters and individual plants won’t have fruit or flowers on them all the time.
  • The fruit of the grape contains ovular seeds, usually more than one. If you pop open a fruit and find a single seed or a crescent-shaped seed, you may be dealing with a poisonous lookalike like moonseed.

Harvesting Wild Grape Leaves

Once you have positively identified your wild grapevine, you may begin harvesting the leaves. You will notice that there are leaves of many sizes on the plant. For stuffing, you will want to choose leaves that are at least 5-6 inches across. I judge by the size of my outstretched hand.  Choose leaves that do not have significant insect damage or other discolorations. Check the backs of the leaves for insect eggs.

I am pretty sure these are ladybug eggs. We’ll leave this one alone.

I just pluck them off where the stem meets the branch and drop them in my basket. Picking grape leaves is quick and not at all fiddly. Although they do like to live among the brambles, they do not have thorns themselves. Though they do like to grow up as high as their support will let them, there are always plenty of leaves within reaching distance.

Since I am only picking leaves as big as my hand, I do not need to worry too much about overharvesting. There are more leaves smaller than my hand than there are large leaves, and those leaves will be large in just a few days. However, if you choose to pick smaller leaves to dry as “chips” or cook up as “greens”, be sure to leave at least 2/3rds of the leaves on the vine so that it can continue to grow and give it a week or two to recover before returning to harvest more.

These grapevines are growing up a shrub in front of an office building in town. Because of its proximity to the road and the fact that this area is tended by professional landscapers, I would not harvest leaves from this vine as it is likely to have been exposed to a lot of toxins.

The best time to start harvesting wild grape leaves here in Michigan is about mid-June. Once I’ve started, I like to return once a week for about three weeks and then I leave them alone. This allows the plants time to recover. Also, as the season wears on the leaves become tougher and more bitter and it becomes harder to find leaves without significant insect damage. And by then its time to start harvesting wild raspberries anyway.

Preserving Wild Grape Leaves

There are several ways to preserve wild grape leaves for use throughout the year. I have heard that blanching and freezing them works well, but I have not tried this. They can also be pickled using water bath canning. My favorite method, however, is to ferment them. They will last a year in the fridge like this.

Fermented Wild Grape Leaves

You will need:

All the grape leaves
Water
Salt
Some canning jars
A large bowl and a slightly smaller plate
A large plate or cutting board for a work surface

  1. Mix a brine of 1 cup water to 1 tbsp salt. How much you will need will depend on how many grape leaves you have.
  2. Carefully rinse off your grape leaves and place them in the bowl. After every few grape leaves you place in the bowl, pour some brine over them to cover. Repeat until you have washed and brined all your grape leaves, mixing more brine as needed.

    Cover your leaves with brine and then place a plate over them to hold them under the water.
  3. Place the plate over the grape leaves in the bowl to hold the leaves under the brine. You can leave these here at room temperature for several hours or overnight before you move on.
  4. Prepare your canning jars by washing them well.
  5. Stack several similarly-sized grape leaves on top of each other on a plate all facing the same way. Cut off any stems.
  6. Roll the stack of grape leaves into a cylinder, like a cigar.
  7. Pop your roll of grape leaves into a canning jar, tucking it down so that it is under the jar’s shoulders.
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 until all but two or three of the grape leaves have been stuck in a jar. Don’t be afraid to crowd them.
  9. Use a funnel to pour the brine (the same brine that your leaves have been soaking in) into the jars. Make more as needed (I generally do not have to but usually have some left over). Give it a tap and tip it side to side to get out as many air bubbles as you can. Take your reserved grape leaves and stuff them down in the top of the jar to make sure that your rolled grape leaves stay underwater and can’t bob back up.
  10. Cover the jar loosely with its lid, do not tighten. You want air to be able to escape.
  11. Store your jars at room temperature for 10 days. Check daily, open the lid, give it a tap, push on the top leaves with a spoon a bit, tip it this way and that to allow bubbles to escape.
  12. The grape leaves will turn grayish-green and the water will be cloudy. The brine will smell pickle-y and taste a bit sour. Your grape leaves are ready. Store them in the fridge.

How to Use Fermented Grape Leaves

Grape leaves are wonderful for wrapping around food to produce a convenient little placket. Traditionally, it is stuffed with a combination of rice and meat, but you can get really creative. If you have a leftover rice pilaf, dirty rice, or any kind of dry meat or a leftover grain salad, you can put a tablespoon in the center of a leaf and wrap it up like a tight little burrito and stick it in your lunch box.

Other Uses for Wild Grapevine

My great grandmother always put a fresh grape leaf in her pickles. Nobody knew why. She didn’t even know why but knew it was important. I know now through research and experimentation that wild grape leaves help keep your pickles crisp. Bay leaves, oak leaves, and horseradish leaves also work, but many people use a commercially available product called “Pickle Crisp” these days.

If you are experiencing a weedy issue with wild grape and need to take out the whole plant, the vines make lovely wreaths to hang on your draw to draw abundance and encourage hospitable energy within your home.

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