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California is known for its abundance of wineries and vineyards; in many valleys of the state thousands of acres of land are coated with European Wine Grapes (Vitis vinifera), and these old vineyards, with their brick wineries and overshadowing live oaks are quite beautiful. But there is another grapevine in California which is not noticed most of the year. The grapes are good only for wildlife; they taste bitter and tart to humans, but the birds seem to relish them. It has soft leaves, more rounded than its European cousin, and grows wild in wet areas, climbing up oaks and cottonwoods and dangling down; cascading down the steep wet slopes of creek valleys. Most of the time it blends in with the vegetation. However, for whatever reason, this plant turns bright yellow and orange in the fall, earlier than any other plant. Old oaks turn into cascades of gold; coast range canyons of black rock are painted with flowing oozing yellow which seems to literally pour out of the hills.

  • Often planted for riparian restoration.
  • Fruit is enjoyed by coyote, opossum, western spotted skunk, striped skunk, wood duck, band-tailed pigeon, California quail, and mountain bluebird, while black-tailed deer browse on the leaves and young stems.
  • California wild grape was used to save the European wine industry between 1870 and 1900 when most Vitis vinifera were killed by leaf- and root-attacking grape phylloxera aphids (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae). Since then, nearly all commercial wine grapes grown anywhere in the world have been grafted onto rootstocks of resistant California wild grape cultivars.
  • Trees such as valley oak and Fremont cottonwood often die after California wild grape climbs into their canopies.
  • Host of the western grapeleaf skeletonizer (a moth, Harrisina brillians, who could easily lend its name to a professional wrestler) which can decimate commercial vineyards.
Source: USDA Forest Service

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