It’s a fine time for muscadines

by | Sep 16, 2020

This time of year muscadine grapes are a hot commodity in North Carolina and the southeast. The juicy and sweet grapes are native to the region, and now is the time to find them from backyards to small farms and farmers markets, and even in grocery stores.

While the old traditional varieties are loved by many people, especially across the southeastern United States, the N.C. Department of Agriculture is funding new research to help commercialize newly developed varieties and expand the appeal of muscadines across the country and even internationally. Other recent research has also investigated the potential of muscadines to fight cancer. Both areas of research could bring huge benefits to help North Carolina muscadine growers sell more grapes.

Before getting into the research, let’s clear up some confusion some people have about muscadines, scuppernongs and the multiple colors sometimes used to describe them – purple, bronze, white and green. Dr. Mark Hoffmann, a small fruits extension specialist and assistant professor at N.C. State, says he and other experts generally divide muscadines into two colors or types – dark and bronze. Any additional color description just helps describe the appearance, Hoffmann says. So you can use “white” or “green” or any other color description if it helps differentiate the grapes, but the base colors are dark and bronze.

Speaking of color, you shouldn’t just call all bronze grapes scuppernongs and all dark grapes muscadines. Scuppernongs are a type of muscadine. More specifically, scuppernongs are an older, traditional cultivar of muscadine grape. There are plenty of other bronze grapes that are not scuppernongs.

“In fact, most bronze grapes aren’t scuppernongs,” Hoffmann said. “Most white or bronze grapes are actually newer cultivars of muscadine.”

New muscadines
Even newer cultivars are the focus of Hoffmann’s current research. The NCDA&CS New and Emerging Crops Program awarded him and his team a grant of nearly $82,000 to evaluate food quality and basic pruning and management practices for some very new muscadines cultivars. The research project was initially slated to last two years, but it will now extend for a third year on the same budget.

Hoffmann hopes the project will lead to some simple management guides for growers of the three new cultivars named Paulk, Oh My! and RazzMatazz. Another goal is to explore possibilities to expand the grapes’ shelf life and to expand the market for muscadines.

Paulk has a traditional muscadine look and taste, but it’s proven to be more consistent and productive than some older muscadine cultivars such as the Supreme. So Hoffman hopes his research will help growers learn about its characteristics and produce more grapes to sell.

Oh My! and RazzMatazz are seedless versions of muscadines. Hoffmann says they are the first cultivars with the distinctive muscadine taste but without seeds. That means they could be a game changer for the muscadine market.

“If people can just pop them in their mouth like a table grape and eat the whole thing, that’s a good thing,” said Hunter Barrier, the coordinator of the New and Emerging Crops Program. “They could appeal to a whole new customer base that’s not familiar with traditional muscadines in the southeast.”

Both seedless cultivars have growing habits that are very different from traditional muscadines though. So Hoffmann’s research could help growers understand how to adapt pruning, thinning and other management practices to help them produce plenty of grapes for the market. (The
North Carolina Muscadine Grape Association has posted pictures and info about the new seedless cultivars online.)

“As with all new and emerging crops, we always have to look at if there’s a market,” Hoffmann said. “There are many many production questions about the seedless cultivars, but they have a lot of promise. We don’t want to wait until there is a market and then realize we don’t know how to handle them, so we want to be ahead of the pack.”

That’s why the New and Emerging Crops Program (NECP) exists.

“What he’s doing with his muscadine crops and identifying new market opportunities is exactly the intent of this program,” Barrier said.

Hoffmann said when he first heard about NECP, he thought it may be targeted for hemp research. He was pleasantly surprised to find out the program is interested in funding research for a wide range of new crops.

“I tried some other grant programs, but because muscadines are such a regional thing, if this program didn’t exist there wouldn’t be much we could do research-wise with muscadines,” Hoffmann said. “There are not a lot of venues that would fund muscadines, and so I’m very happy this program is available.”

Muscadines for fighting cancer
Along with new varieties, Barrier believes the other big news in the muscadine market recently is research that has people talking about possibly fighting cancer with muscadines. A $20 million donation to Wake Forest University in 2015 has led to three clinical trials so far.

“We can’t say it cures cancer, but there are some promising findings about muscadines preventing the spread of cancer,” Barrier said.

The studies have tested a muscadine grape extract that capitalizes on the high level of antioxidants in muscadines. In addition to possibly preventing or slowing the spread of cancer, the studies have found muscadine extract may also be used as a probiotic and that it could boost energy and reduce fatigue and some negative effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Researchers hope to continue the research for more definitive results.

“With these new varieties and the new findings about possibly new health benefits, there are a lot of new and emerging opportunities with North Carolina’s oldest crop,” Barrier said.