Mustang Grapes and Dewberries

By N. M. Cedeño

 

In the second week of March, the Bradford pear trees in my backyard burst into bloom, displaying a profusion of tiny white flowers. Within a few days, rain and wind caused the white flower petals to “snow” down from the tree, covering my patio in a layer of white. Following the flowers, came the tree’s budding leaves. And, what does the first burst of green bring to my mind? Jelly!

Signs of spring are my cues to start checking vines in the green belt by my house. I blame my father for this habit.  He learned to appreciate nature’s wild bounty in the form of dewberries and mustang grapes in his youth. Decades later, my parents moved to my maternal grandparents’ property in the piney woods north of Houston to be caretakers for my grandparents. There, the forest’s abundant supply of berries and grapes each spring and summer provided my father with a hobby: jelly making.

Mustang grapes by the gallon, picture by N. M. Cedeño

Each April, he would harvest gallons of dewberries from the property with the help of visiting children and grandchildren. Each July, the mustang grapes would ripen all at once. They had to be picked immediately or they would be eaten by birds. The mustang grape harvest typically lasted only one day.

After each harvest, my father would make dozens of jars of jelly with occasional help from my mother, my family, and my siblings’ families. The jars would be labeled with the date and contents and distributed to the family with instructions to return the empty jars.

For several years, my family enjoyed this process each spring and summer. We would make sure to visit my grandparent’s property during April and July. During those years, thanks to my parents’ presence, my grandfather died peacefully at home as per his wishes. When it became clear that my grandmother shouldn’t remain on the property, my parents moved her to the city, and her property was sold. My grandmother died about a year later. With the loss of my grandparents, came the secondary loss of the abundant dewberries and Mustang grapes that had thrived on their property.

Dewberries in a colander, picture by N. M. Cedeño

So, each spring as I walk my dog, I search the wild spaces around my home, keeping my eyes peeled for telltale signs of nature’s bounty. A few weeks ago, I found white flowers popping out on dewberry vines. As of last week, tiny green berries had formed where the flowers once were. The dewberries I’ve seen so far are disappointingly few in number. They are also surrounded by poison ivy. Picking them would require gloves, boots, hats, and insect repellent.

Dewberries, native wild blackberries, are typically much smaller than the large, plump blackberries available in grocery stores. So why go through the trouble, risking poison ivy and chigger bites, to get them each spring? We pick them because their flavor is so much better than the grocery store variety. As with grocery store tomatoes and peaches, blackberries have been bred to be larger, juicier, and prettier, but somewhere along the way, the taste got lost. Additionally, when I pick dewberries, I remember my grandparents, and I remember the fun we all had, siblings and cousins working together, picking berries.

Improvised dewberry picking tool: duct tape on a spaghetti ladle, Cedeño Family picture

In July, as I walk my dog, I will scan the trees for mustang grape vines. Unlike dewberries, mustang grapes straight off the vine don’t make the best eating. Their skin is thick, and downright leathery compared to other grapes. Their seeds are large. We pick mustang grapes because they make great jelly. I’m happy to have found an extremely large vine covered with small, unripe grapes in the flood plain by my neighborhood. When the grapes ripen in July, I hope to beat the birds (and the neighbor who also harvests them) and collect the ripe, purple-black grapes.

My kids will help me, and, hopefully, my father will join the fun. Then, of course, we will make some jelly.

***

N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her début novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).

12 thoughts on “Mustang Grapes and Dewberries

  1. Mom would send us into the pasture to pick the wild grapes which had tressled around and up a regular tree. I was about 12 years old with the thought process that I could climb the tree and pick the grapes. Without looking where I was going, I hit my head on a yellow jacket nest which resulted in 40-50 stings all on my head and face! On the phone, the doctor said I could be dead on arrival if we drove the 20 minutes to town and to instead put me in a tub and cake my face with baking soda and vinegar. It worked because I lived! Home made grape jelly was never the same.

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  2. You brought back summer memories for me ! Houston near Katy when the land was undeveloped – lots of dewberries and picking all day – bug bites galore and sweaty dirty work then Grandma could wave her wand and we had jelly and the best of summer’s offerings in the most delicious cobblers you can imagine! Thank you for reminding me what fun we had!

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  3. You bring back good memories for me, too. I picked dewberries only once, in a pasture my uncle leased to keep cattle in. With dewberries came chiggers. But the berries were worth the scratching. We always had a lot when they were in season; maybe my grandfather provided them. My mother made a dewberry roll that was pretty but never lasted more than two meals. Sometimes one. As for mustang grapes–she made cobbler with green mustang grapes. It took a ton of sugar and still was unbelievably tart, but so good. My grandfather brought those from his farm. He was a good man to have around.

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  4. You have my mouth watering! Never have seen dewberries or the mustang grapes I don’t think. But when we had a small farm in MN, picked currants and wild strawberries that grew in the woods and made jam from the currants. What great memories.

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  5. We have an arrangement with one of our new neighbors. We helped them establish some grapevines a few years ago In return she brings me grapes to make jelly. Then of course I take a few jars to her. This fall I am hoping my apple trees will yield enough apples to make apple jelly as well.

    When it comes to veggies I am a bit of a veggie snob. I prefer most veggies home grown. I rarely eat store bought veggies. I prefer to grow my own and free or can the extras. When I grow them myself I know they haven’t been sprayed with pesticides or chemically treated, and as you know they just taste better.

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