The grape that ate the world

grapefail or grapewin?

We’ve posted about our grape problems before. Pierce’s disease makes it hard to grow grapes in SoCal. We’ve been trying to get resistant varieties to grow on our patio arbor (aka The Masculinity Pavillion) with no success. Our most recent planting attempts are stunted and unhappy, meaning that once again we’re experiencing A Summer Without Shade.

While our “resistant” varieties are proving not-so-resistant, there is at least one grape that laughs at Pierce’s disease: the native California grape, Vitus californica. I believe this sturdy wild grape provides the root stock for the vineyards up North. We planted one of these near our north side fence maybe five years ago now. While the rest of our grapes wilt and struggle, this one is completely the opposite. It is monstrously huge, cheerfully indestructible, and absolutely out of control.

Without water or any encouragement whatsoever it has grown all along the side of the house, from the back yard to the front yard–some 50 feet. It long ago swamped the 6′ chain link fence and now entertains itself by making grabs at both our house and our next door neighbor’s.

This week we have to go next door armed with pruners and machetes and flame throwers and beat it back out of the neighbor’s yard. Meanwhile, tendrils of the vine are reaching into our kitchen window. I’ve allowed this to go on because it pleases me to be reminded of the supremacy of nature–and also, it ensures we can’t forget to go save the neighbor.

(And yes, we really should have done this over winter, when the vine was bare. As I recall, I made noises about it, and Erik grumbled, “Put it on the list…” Anyway, the monster didn’t lose its leaves until quite late–maybe December or January, then seemed to sprout again immediately.)

The grape grows about six inches a day. Since I took these photos, 3 more vines have made their way in and one has reached the ceiling. It’s going beyond cute to somewhat alarming.

Oh, and do we at least get fruit from this beast? No, we do not. It has never fruited. Not a single grape. californica does make fruit, supposedly, but we’ve never tasted it. Our vine is too busy putting all of its energy into swamping the world.

You may be asking why we don’t plant a Vitis californica on our arbor. The answer is we probably will next year. Erik had his heart set on a tastier grape, so resisted that option, but judging how the newest set of contenders are struggling out there, I’m thinking we have a native in our future. Perhaps the beautiful Roger’s Red.

If we do so, we will definitely be better about staying on top of the pruning. This is our lesson learned.

Leave a comment


  1. Can you train it up the side of the house to keep the south side cool during the summer? I tried training bean vines up the side of my house this year but the leaves aren’t big enough to be very shady. Also I don’t know how I’m going to pick the beans that are 15′ up.
    I’ve been eyeing my vines for a while, thinking about dolmas, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Probably worthwhile, though!

  2. Yes! It looks like dolma time! Or the attack of the killer vine! Seriously though, it does make a beautiful picture and I miss the grapes of my mother’s wild grapevine in Pasadena nearly 40 years ago.

  3. Wow. I know my Grape vine is going nuts this year as well but it is on an arbor away from the house. Seeing these pictures I am glad it is. Although it does make for interesting views.

  4. I used to have a jasmine plant like this when I lived in Austin. I lived in a 3rd floor apartment and it had grown up the building, taken over the entire railing of my balcony, and got to the point where opening the back door meant 6 feet of jasmine thwacking you in the face. It smelled so good, though 🙂

  5. Reminds me of “Plantzilla” a fabulous kids’ book about an ever-growing plant. Pets go missing, the plant learns to write and open the fridge.

    Save your neighbors while you still can!

  6. @Meems: I tried to pickle these leaves once long ago, and it turned out badly. The leaves, even young ones, are tough and stringy. I have this notion that the wild leaves are tougher than domesticated leaves. I may be completely wrong. At any rate I do need to revisit the subject. We blogged about it at the time, and got lots of advice. Now if I can only find the post!

    @Kirsten: Grape leaves are definitely helpful in keeping pickles crisp! That is very true and highly recommended. However, with this plant, it’s like, “Three leaves down, six million to go…”

    @Rena: I wish it were on the south side of the house, but it’s on the north. I’m not sure if it would have grown so big on the south side–that wall is roasting hot. We’re trying to find something to shade that side right now.

  7. Do not, do not, do NOT grow a grape vine up against your house. It will eventually tear the house down, and given the photos eventually isn’t very far off.

    As an edible, you might consider one of the muscadines. They need lots of summer heat, but I’m not sure if they would thrive without the mugginess here in the southeast.

    Be forewarned that I once removed a 150′ wild muscadine that was busy tearing down a fence and was getting started on a building. Do not neglect the annual pruning and training!

  8. We have the same native grape growing on an arbor-type thing above our south-facing picture window. We cut it back hard every year and it grows back like crazy – it is like a curtain now in front of our window, which is great for shade, but in the 7 years we’ve had it, it has NEVER fruited. The Theo. Payne folks I bought it from – if I remember correctly – said it must be a “male” plant that won’t ever fruit. I think this winter it will have to go, because if I can’t eat it – it has to go.

  9. Your aggressive grape reminds me of our aggressive hops. Even with our very late spring and with having been chopped up and moved to make room for the chicken run this year, this thing made it from the ground to the roof in just a few weeks. If we didn’t have such harsh winters here, I’d expect it to completely cover the side of the house in a few years. It’s great for shade, though. 🙂

  10. i did a post recently for work that mentions the flavor of the native grape.
    tl;dr, small and sour.

    I have been thinking of growing a california grape and grafting some various culinary grapes to make something like the citrus salad trees but with grapes. But that is another project for the future some time.

    There are a lot of california grape vines at the Lyle Center at Cal Poly, they grow extremely vigorously. They are used on the south side of buildings to shade in summer and let light in during winter. There is one that is choking out an olive tree. They get pruned back every year, i did the pruning one year and it wasn’t that hard, but it was a little scary standing on the pergolas trying to prune.

  11. It’s a trade-off, you know—shade or fruit, not likely both. You will probably never see a grape on that vine unless you cut it WAY back—almost to the ground—during the dormant winter period.

  12. “… It has never fruited. Not a single grape…

    Wild grapes are dioecious. That means, the vines are either male, or female. Either your vine is male, or it is female and there is no pollinator nearby.

    I doubt the issue is pruning. Pruning normally increases yield, but an unpruned vine can still fruit.

    Try Roger’s Red instead. It is a Vitis californica/Vitis vinifera “Alicate Bouschet” hybrid, which has the self pollinating hermaphrodite flowers of the domestic parent.

    Or, if it’s a male vine, get a female-flowered local Vitis girdiania as a companion. (V.girdiana is the local species, V californica is actually from central/north Calif). Scope out the riverbeds, or look at the wild vines of Calamigos Ranch, Riley’s Apple Farm, etc, and mark fruiting (ie female) vines, then take cuttings this winter. Plant them next to the male vine and you should get fruit in 2-3 years.

    Good luck.

  13. @Anon: Thank you for the advice. Fascinating about V. girdiana/californica. We had finally figured out the male/female thing (who knew?), and were contemplating a Roger’s for the arbor, but I like the idea of taking cuttings from the wild very much, too.

  14. Did you ever look up the Texas and Florida Pierce-resistant grapes that I posted links to, a while back? Were you able to obtain any of those?

    I had real trouble getting my Lenoir cuttings to root, between Vitis aestivalis’ relatively poor rooting capability and Canis familiaris damage I ended up with only one surviving vine…which seems to be doing well now.

  15. I just came across your blog via GOOD. If you want a variety that grows well, gives you shade, and grows delicious Japanese candy like grapes, I have a variety that I can give you. Happy to share! Just let me know and I’ll email you directly. Oh and I live in Silverlake too so I know it grows here!

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