Flora Fact: Jelly Gems
Mustang grapes hide juicy fruit beneath heart-shaped leaf canopies.
By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
As a young boy, Bron Praslicka of Flower Mound often helped his grandmother can vegetables. Once mustang grapes ripened, he knew to expect more work.
“Mamaw would come get me, and we’d pick mustang grapes all day,” he remembers. “If she saw grapes growing on someone’s fence, she’d knock on a door and make a new friend. Then we’d make grape jelly, which was a huge job, but it tasted wonderful.”
Right off the vine, though, mustang grapes taste terrible.
“You’ll need plenty of sugar to make the sour species palatable,” writes Delena Tull in Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest: A Practical Guide. She also advises pickers to wear gloves.
Mustang grapes — the state’s dominant grape species — occur along riverbanks, fencerows and sandy slopes across the eastern half of Texas. Resistant to disease and drought, the vines often grow high into trees and can blanket canopies. With age, trunks and branches thicken and turn woody. Their broad leaves are lobed or heart shaped; white fuzz covers leaf undersides. Tiny white flowers bloom in spring, bearing blackish or purple fruit by late summer or early fall.
In 1861, Texas state geologist S.B. Buckley officially named the species Vitis mustangensis.
“This is called the mustang grape in Texas, where it is very common,” he stated in his species description. Botanist Asa Gray, though, pointed out that “mustang” implies a “wild horse.”
The Civil War interrupted the men’s exchange in a natural science journal. Finally, in 1870, Buckley countered: “It is also the name of a stream along which this grape grows in great abundance.”
But which Mustang Creek? Texas only has 17 or so.
Factoid: Horticulturalist Thomas V. Munson saved the world’s grape industry from disease in the late 19th century using rootstock from Texas mustang vines.