Weedkiller takes a toll on nation's oldest grape vine

Charlotte ObserverJuly 5, 2010 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For centuries, a massive grapevine has grown on the northern end of Roanoke Island, and long ago came to be called the Mother Vine.

It's believed to be the nation's oldest cultivated grapevine.

Cuttings from the vine, which yields sweet scuppernong grapes, helped sprout North Carolina's wine industry. The vine erupts from the sandy soil in Manteo a gnarly 2 feet thick, and has survived nor'easters, bugs and mildew for maybe 400 years.

Then a utility contractor sprayed it with weedkiller. The Mother Vine is sick.

Jack Wilson, who has owned half the vine for 52 years, noticed a bit of browning in late May. He found more browning the next day.

It turned out that a contractor for Dominion Power had driven through, spraying herbicides to keep vines from engulfing power poles. A tendril of the Mother Vine had touched a pole. Wilson said a neighbor reported that the contractor "sprayed the heck out of everything."

Grapevine and other experts rushed to the scene. Dominion Power fell on its sword.

"We feel awful this has happened," said spokesman Chuck Penn. "I mean, you're talking about an historic icon, 400 years old, and we are really saddened."

Wine lovers are holding their breath. Scuppernongs, a type of native muscadine, were the first U.S. cultivated wine grapes. They're the foundation of the state's 175-year-old wine industry, now seventh largest in the nation.

North Carolina's official state toast salutes a land "where the scuppernong perfumes the breeze at night." The sweet, aromatic white wine made from the grapes captures that perfume.

The Mother Vine "is sort of a symbol of North Carolina's heritage, so it breaks my heart to see it suffer," said Margo Metzger, who until recently served as executive director of the N.C. Wine and Grape Council. "But I'd say that any grapevine that has survived 400 years could withstand the test of human error."

Wilson said experts told him the vine might have to be cut back as much as 10 percent to stop the herbicides' progress. He's still cutting it back daily.

Experts have advised watering and fertilizing the plant, stimulating new growth away from the sprayed part.

"It was just one of those things that never should have happened," said Lloyd Hipkins, a Virginia Tech weed scientist who inspected the vine. "But the vine's not going to die, it's going to be fine."

Sir Walter Raleigh's explorers reported in the 1580s that grapevines on the coast "covered every shrub and climbed the tops of high cedars. In all the world, a similar abundance was not to be found."

Folklore says Raleigh's doomed Lost Colony discovered the Mother Vine on Roanoke Island, planted there by native Indians. Historical accounts say scuppernong wine was produced in the area by the early 1700s.

But like the fate of the colonists, the vine's true origin remains a mystery.

The vine now measures about 32 feet by 120 feet, wooden scaffolding bearing its weight. Wilson, 84, said it was about three times larger when he and his wife Estelle bought it 52 years ago, but they have trimmed it back greatly over the years.

Visitors come see the vine year-round. Local folks eat most of the amber grapes, or make jelly from them, although this year's harvest won't be safe to consume.

Fountain Odom, a longtime Charlotte lawyer and former state senator, and his wife own a company that makes MotherVine wine and nutritional supplements produced from the vine's cuttings.

"I think she's going to be okay," said Odom, who has tended muscadine grapevines all his life. "But it will take monitoring for probably two or three years to be sure."

Any vines that can survive so long on the hot, sandy coast, Metzger added, have some fight in them.

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