Vitis vulpina

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Name: Vitis vulpina L.vvulp habit vanderbilt

Family: Vitaceae, the Grape Family

Common Names: Frost grape, winter grape, chicken grape. Two grape species are known as Frost Grape. To avoid confusion, the name Frost Grape will only be applied here to V. vulpinaV. riparia will be referred to as River-bank Grape.

Etymology: Vitis is Latin for grapevine.  Vulpina means “of a fox” (15).

Botanical synonyms:
V. cordifolia Michx. (7)           V. illex Bailey (1)
V. muscardina Raf.                 V. pullaria Leconte (2)

Quick Notable Features (5):
¬ Reddish-brown bark splitting into narrow strips
¬ Alternate, simple, toothed leaves
vvulp leaf vanderbilt¬ Cordate leaf shape and unlobed or merely shouldered leaves
¬ Stems and leaves not markedly glaucous

Plant Height: Climbs up to 25m (1).

Subspecies/varieties recognized:
V. vulpina var. amurensis (Rupr.) Regel
V. vulpina var. parvifolia Regel
V. vulpina var. yzabalana S. Watson (12)
Three other subspecies/varieties: V. vulpina var. praecox (Engelm. ex Bailey) Bailey,V. vulpina subsp. riparia (Michx.) Clausen, and V. vulpina var. syrticola Fern. & Wieg. (12).  All are now classified as V. riparia (1).

Most Likely Confused with: Often misidentified as V. riparia.  Can also be confused with other Vitis species, as well as Ampelopsis brevipedunculata.

Habitat Preference: Dry to rich mesic forests, bottomlands, and thickets.  Aassociated with disturbed habitats (riverbanks, fencerows, shores, dunes 5, 7).

Geographic Distribution in Michigan: Very rare (threatened species) in Michigan; found in the southernmost part of Michigan (1, 5).

vvulp vein vanderbiltKnown Elevational Distribution: None found.

Complete Geographic Distribution: Native to North America.  Ranges from Nebraska to Massachusetts and south, and from Texas and Kansas to the eastern seaboard.  May be found in Michigan and New York; unreported in Connecticut and Rhode Island (1, 7).

Vegetative Plant Description: High-climbing liana with reddish-brown bark splitting into narrow strips.  Leaves are simple, alternate, coarsely to sharply toothed, cordate, 10-15cm long and wide.  Leaves are generally unlobed but may occasionally appear slightly 3-lobed, although lobes are always shallow and more accurately described as mere shoulders.  Leaves are glabrous when mature but retain some pubescence along principal veins abaxially.  The stem is glabrous and contains pith interrupted by diaphragms 2-6mm thick (3, 6, 7).  Vessel diameters in Vitis spp. are large with Vitis vulpina reported as 208 µm in diameter and only 558 µm in length (17).vvulp pith vanderbilt

Climbing Mechanism:  Plants climb using forked axillary tendrils opposite the leaves.  Tendrils are absent every 3rd node (6, 7).

Flower Description: Flowers are borne in axillary panicles 10-15cm long.  They are green, perigynous, 5-merous, and incomplete: the calyx is essentially missing.  Stamens are 5, opposite the petals, and can be elongate to short and erect to reflexed, if the flower is sterile or fertile, respectively.  Pistils are rudimentary to well-developed depending on fertility.  The superior ovary is 2-celled with 2 ovules per cell.  Styles are short; stigmas are 2-lobed (3, 6, 7).

Flowering Time: Mid-May to mid-June in Northeastern United States (7).vvulp flower vanderbilt

Pollinator: Flowers are bee- and self-pollinated (9).

Fruit Type and Description: Fruits develop in September and October.  The fruit is a black non-glaucous berry 3-10mm in diameter (3, 6, 7). 

Seed Description: Seeds are round, somewhat acuminate, approximately 5 mm long (6, 7).

Dispersal Syndrome: The fruit is bird-dispersed, specifically observed in Illinois being consumed by robins, thrushes, flickers, and grackles (11, 18).

Distinguished by: V. vulpina may be distinguished from other grape species by its consistently unlobed or very shallowly lobed leaf shape.  The non-glaucous fruit is also distinct from those of V. aestivalis, which have a thin bloom, and those of V. riparia, which are heavily glaucous.  Although V. labrusca berries are also non-glaucous, its leaves are densely pubescent abaxially, distinguishing it from all other grape species.vvulp seed usda

Vitis can be distinguished from Ampelopsis brevipedunculata by twig and fruit characteristics: Ampelopsis stems contain white pith and are covered by tight bark with lenticels (7); the berries are dry or have only a thin layer of pulp, and in the case of A. brevipedunculata, often grow in multiple colors on the same branch, giving the plant its name ‘Porcelainberry’ (6).  Vitis bark is shredding and contains brown pith, and the berries are pulpy and black.  Leaf morphology is typically unreliable in distinguishing the two genera. 

Other members of the family in Michigan (number species): Vitis (3), Ampelopsis (3), Parthenocissus (3).

Ethnobotanical Uses: V. vulpina is used for a variety of medicinal purposes including treatment of the kidneys, liver, eyes, mouth, skin, gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract, and rheumatism.  Wilted leaves are used for gynecological aid.  Decoctions of twigs are used as antidotes for Indian turnip poisoning or as tonics to combat insanity (4).

VITAVitisvulpinaMAPPhylogenetic Information: Family Vitaceae is a core eudicot recently added to the Rosids.  They are unplaced in any order.  However, Vitaceae may instead be a sister group to all the rosids.  Vitaceae is most closely related to the Crossosomatales, Geraniales, and Myrtales (8).

Interesting Quotation or Other Interesting Factoid not inserted above:  V. riparia Michx. and V. vulpina L. have been known as V. cordifolia var. riparia (Michx) A. Gray and V. cordifolia var. vulpina (L.) Eaton, respectively (12).  These names have since been dropped and V. cordifolia Michx. exists only as a synonym to V. vulpina L.  However, they are still sometimes reported as subspecies of one another (1).  V. riparia has been misapplied as a synonym to V. vulpina (Fern. ed. 7, not L.) but should not be confused with V. vulpina L., the species treated here, now recognized as a separate species.  Unfortunately, the term Frost Grape is still applied to both species, a legacy of a confusing naming history.

V. vulpina literally means “foxy grape” (7) (referring to the animal, and not any physical attractiveness or wily behavior), or more precisely vixen grape since vulpina is feminine (14).  It should not be confused with the fox grape, V. labrusca.  “Foxy” can also mean having a distinct flavor, especially that of North American grapes; however, this is generally only applied to the fox grape V. labrusca, and does not explain the basis for using the word “fox” to describe grapes.  The origin of the association between foxes and grapes is quite interesting.  Foxes have long been thought to have a penchant for grapes, as exemplified by some ancient literature.  References can be seen in Aesop’s the Fox and the Grapes fable and chapter 2 of the Song of Solomon; these stories may have given rise to the gardening myth that foxes are attracted to grapes, enter gardens, and dig up lawns and vegetation (14).  The common name for the species is much more straightforward: Frost grape refers to the fact that the berries of this species and River-bank grape are very acidic and become sweet after the first frosts.

Although some names can be confusing, taxonomists are not evil (13).

Vitis tendrils and inflorescences grow at the same location (at nodes, opposite leaves) and their presences are mutually exclusive (either one or the other, not both).  The two different structures develop from the same undifferentiated axillary primordia, which default into inflorescences.  Interestingly, gibberellins, which normally stimulate flowering in plants, are responsible for the conversion of developing inflorescences into tendrils and the elongation of stem internodal zones in Vitis.  This is crucial to the climbing habit of grapes (16).

Literature and websites used:

  1. USDA, NRCS. 2006. The PLANTS Database (, 8 November 2006). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
  2. Wunderlin, R. & B. Hansen. 2006. Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants. University of South Florida Institute for Systematic Botany.
  3. Gleason, H.A. & A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of Vascular Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. Bronx, New York, USA: New York Botanical Garden Press.
  4. Moerman, D. 2006. Native American Ethnobotany. University of Michigan – Dearborn.
  5. Voss, E. G. 1985. Michigan Flora Part II. Cranbrook Institute: Ann Arbor, MI
  6. Gleason, H. A. 1963. Illustrated Flora of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, Volume 2. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, Inc.
  7. Fernald, M. L. 1950. Gray’s Manual of Botany, 8th ed. New York: American Book Company.
  8. APG II 2003. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG II. Bot. Journal of the Linnean Society 141(4):399-436.
  9. McGregor, S. E. 1976. Small fruits and brambles. In Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants.
  10. Song, H. 2006. Flora of Missouri.
  11. Hardie, W.J. and T.P. O’Brien. 1988. Considerations of the Biological Significance of Some Volatile Constituents of Grape (Vitis spp.). Aust. J. Bot. 3: 107-117.
  12. Solomon, J. 2006. W3TROPICOS VAST nomenclatural database. Missouri Botanical Garden.
  13. Ladew, D. 2005. Taxonomy (When Naming Things Exceeds Good Sense).
  14. Ambers, C. 2003. The true sweet briar grape: Vitis cordifolia. Sweet Briar College.
  15. Brown, R.W. 1956. Composition of Scientific Words. Washington, D.C., USA: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  16. Boss, P. K. & M.R. Thomas. 2002. Association of dwarfism and floral induction with a grape ‘green revolution’ mutation. Nature. 416: 847-850.
  17. Bell, D.J., I.N. Forseth & A.H. Teramura. 1988. Field water relations of three temperate vines. Oecologia 74:537-545.
  18. Malmborg, P.K. and M.F. Willson 1988. Foraging ecology of avian frugivores and some consequences for seed dispersal in an Illinois woodlot. The Condor 90(1):173-186.

1-5. Habit. Leaf, Leaf Close-up, Stem Pith, and Flower Images © Bioimages from Steven J. Baskauf:
6. Seed image courtesy of Steve Hurst, from ARS Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory. Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
7. Species distribution map, derived from the Michigan Flora Online.

Primary Author: Susu Yuan with additions and corrections from John Bradtke and R.J. Burnham

© Robyn J. Burnham, University of Michigan
For additional information on Michigan Plant Diversity web pages please contact Robyn J. Burnham via email: rburnham“at”