Vitis riparia

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Name: Vitis riparia Michaux

Family: Vitaceae, the Grape Family

Common Names: River-bank grape, frost grape

There are currently two grape species known as Frost Grape.  To avoid confusion, V. riparia will be referred to as River-bank Grape, and Frost Grape will be treated as V. vulpina.

Etymology: Vitis is Latin for grapevine.  Riparia means “of river-banks” (2).Vitis riparia HABIT backlit IsLkRd

Botanical synonyms (1,5):
V. vulpina L. spp. riparia (Michx.) R.T. Clausen
V. rupestris Scheele

Quick Notable Features (5):
¬ Reddish-brown bark splitting into narrow strips
¬ Alternate, simple, cordate, toothed and lobed leaves
¬ Sharp ciliolate teeth; forward-pointing lobes

Plant Height: Climbs up to 17m (1).Vitis riparia FR LV IsLkRdsm

Subspecies/varieties recognized (11):
V. riparia var. praecox Engelm. ex Bailey and
V. riparia var. syrticola (Fern. & Wieg.) Fern.

Most Likely Confused with: Can be misidentified as other Vitis species, especially summer grape V. aestivalis and the real frost grape, V. vulpina.  See a recent paper by Baumgartner et al (20) for images of leaf differences. Other impostors include Parthenocissus tricuspidata, Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, and species in the cucurbit genera Echinocystis and Sicyos.

Habitat Preference: Lowland to upland forests, especially disturbed areas. It is prevalent on shores and dunes (5).

Geographic Distribution in Michigan: Common throughout the state, currently reported from 65 of 83 counties (5).

Known Elevational Distribution: Reported in the mountain states of Montana and Wyoming, ~ 1,500m (1).

Complete Geographic Distribution: Native to North America.  Ranges north to Quebec and Manitoba, south to West Virginia and Tennessee, and west to Texas.  Also found in some mountain and western states including Wyoming, Montana, and Washington (1, 6, 7).

Vegetative Plant Description: High-climbing perennial liana with reddish-brown bark splitting into narrow strips.  Leaves are simple, alternate, cordate, toothed, and lobed. Leaf lobes are pronounced, pointed forward, and longer than broad.  Venation is palmate.  Leaves are 7-15cm long and broad.  Young leaves are pubescent beneath; older leaves retain some pubescence along veins and vein-axils.  To achieve continued apical growth, lateral summer branches are generally abscised at the end of each season of growth (17). The brown pith is diaphragmed (3, 5, 7) and the bark is noticeably deep red-brown and shreddy-peeling (pers. obs., RJB).VITRIP_MC1

Climbing Mechanism:  Plant climbs using bifid axillary tendrils opposite the leaves (6).  Tendrils are widely believed to be modified shoots and usually are found at two out of every three nodes (17).

Flower Description: Flowers are borne in axillary panicles 5-15cm long.  Flowers are perigynous, 5-merous, green, and incomplete: the calyx is essentially missing.  Stamens are 5, opposite the petals, and can be elongate or short and erect or reflexed, depending on whether 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 (6, 7, 10).  The sexual system has been characterized as functionally dioecious because although pollen is produced by both sexes, it is inaperturate in the functionally female plants and yet bears apertures in the functionally male plants (18).

Flowering Time: Mid-May through early July in the northeastern United States (7).

Pollinator: Flowers are bee-, wind-, or self-pollinated (9, 18).11618

Fruit Type and Description: Fruits appear in August and September.  The fruit is a dark purple to black, heavily glaucous, acidic berry, 6-12mm in diameter.  Fruits are borne in axillary panicles.  Berries contain up to four seeds (6, 7).

Seed Description: Seeds are rounded with a very short beak, approximately 5 mm long (6, 10).

Dispersal Syndrome: Grapes are bird dispersed (12).

Distinguished by: V. riparia leaves usually have pronounced lobes that are longer than broad and pointing forward; leaves of V. aestivalis typically have shallower lobing and much smaller serrations (but see 20).  V. riparia also has less pubescence on the leaf undersides than V. aestivalisV. riparia can be distinguished from V. vulpina by its distinct lobing; V. vulpina leaves are unlobed or with shoulders.  However, Voss acknowledges that “[grape] species are often difficult to distinguish.  Flower and fruit characters are even less useful than vegetative ones” (5).
Vitis species are distinguished from similar-looking cucurbits (Echinocystis, Sicyos) by the tendrils, which arise opposite (180°) from the leaves.  Cucurbit tendrils arise at 90° from leaves.a. brevi vs v. riparia
Vitis may be distinguished from Parthenocissus tricuspidata by its shredding and peeling bark; Parthenocissus bark is tight.  Parthenocissus tendrils also terminate in adhesive disks, whereas Vitis tendrils are twining.
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 (2), Parthenocissus (3).

Ethnobotanical Uses: V. riparia is used exclusively for food.  Berries are eaten fresh or dried for winter use (4).  Ethnobotanical uses for V. riparia may overlap with those of V. vulpina, as the two species have had a confusing history and have long existed as one species.  For additional ethnobotanical information, see Vitis vulpina (see our V. vulpina webpage).


Phylogenetic Information: Vitaceae is a core eudicot recently added to the Rosid group in the order Vitales (APGIII).  Vitales may be a sister group to all the Rosids.  Vitaceae is most closely related to the Crossosomatales, Geraniales, and Myrtales (8, 15).

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 (13).  These names have since been dropped and V. cordifolia Michx. only exists as a synonym to V. vulpina L..  However, they are still sometimes reported as subspecies of each other (1).  V. riparia has been treated as a synonym to V. vulpina (Fern. ed. 7, not L.) but should not be confused with V. vulpina L., now known as a separate species (7).  Unfortunately, V. riparia still retains its common name Frost Grape, a legacy of its confusing naming history.

VITAVitisripariaMAPGrapes are delicious (personal observation, Susu Yuan).  The grapes are sour until the first frost, but they make good jelly (5).

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 (14).  Furthermore, the plant transitions from spirally arranged leaves as a juvenile to distichously arranged leaves which bear tendrils at 2 of 3 nodes (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. Charters, M.L. 2006. Calflora – California Plant Names. A Dictionary of Botanical Etymology.
  3. Iverson, L., D. Ketzner, & J. Karnes 2006. Vitis riparia. Illinois Plant Information Network.
  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, U.S.A.: Hafner Publishing Company, Inc.
  7. Fernald, M. L. 1950. Gray’s Manual of Botany, 8th edition. New York: American Book Co.
  8. APG II 2003. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG II. Botanical J. 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. Gleason, H.A. & A. Cronquist 1991. Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. New York, U.S.A.: The New York Botanical Garden Press.
  11. Song, H. 2006. Flora of Missouri.
  12. Hardie, W. J. & T. P. O’Brien 1988. Considerations of the biological significance of some volatile constituents of grape (Vitis spp.). Australian Journal of Botany 3: 107-17.
  13. Solomon, J. 2006. W3TROPICOS VAST nomenclatural database. Missouri Botanical Garden.
  14. Boss, P.K. & M.R. Thomas 2002. Association of dwarfism and floral induction with a grape ‘green revolution’ mutation. Nature 416: 847-850.
  15. APG III 2009. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III. Botanical J. Linnean Society 161: 105–121.
  16. LaCroix, C.R. & U. Posluszny 1989. Phyllotactic patterns in some members of the Vitaceae. Botanical Gazette 150(3): 303-313.
  17. Gerrath, J.M. & U. Posluszny 1988. Morphological and anatomical development in the Vitaceae I. Vegetative development in Vitis riparia. Canadian J. Botany 66: 209-224.
  18. Kevan, P.G., R.W. Longair, & R.M. Gadawski 1985. Dioecy and pollen dimorphism in Vitis riparia (Vitaceae). Canadian J. Botany 63(12): 2263-2267.
  19. Gerrath, J. M. (1992) Developmental morphology and anatomy of grape flowers, in Horticultural Reviews, Volume 13 (ed J. Janick), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Oxford, UK. doi: 10.1002/9780470650509.ch8
  20. Baumgartner, A., M. Donahoo, D. H. Chitwood, &D. J. Peppe. 2020. The influences of environmental change and development on leaf shape in Vitis. American Journal of Botany
    107(4): 676–688

Image Credits (all used with permission):
1,2) General habit image and leaf and fruit close up © Robyn J. Burnham, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
3) Twig image is copyright Michael Clayton, Wisconsin Botanical Information System, Wisconsin State Herbarium, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
4) Flower image © R. W. Smith
5) Ampelopsis fruit image copyright Karlheinz Knoch, 2005. Photo:
6) Fruit image © Robyn J. Burnham, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
7) Seed image copyright Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database”
8) Species distribution map, derived from the Michigan Flora Online.

Primary Author: Susu Yuan, with editing and additions by John Bradtke and Robyn 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”