The California wild grape is a favorite for covering arbors, walls, or fences (ours covers a chainlink fence). If not given something to climb over, it will become a mounding, spreading groundcover. Unlike many native vines, Vitis californica does not need an exceptional amount of water – light shade and deep watering every one to two weeks will keep it happy.
This vine is deciduous during the winter. During the spring buds of new growth appear, resulting in large apple-green leaves and inconspicuous flowers. These flowers give way in the summer to clusters of grape which start green, but later turn all shades of purple (a close-up of a typical bunch is shown below). These grapes are much-prized by birds; we've never heard a mockingbird make such a threatening sound as when it was guarding this plant, and two California Trashers camped out one summer while the grapes were on the vine.
Vitis californica will grow several feet each year – the plant pictured below is about six years old, and is also sneaking its way up a mature Toyon growing next door. It can be pruned, but that would remove the wonder of seeing what it will climb over next (look for it soon in a neighborhood near you...). More than one owner has nicknamed their grape “Grabby” for its tendency to reach out to other plants, structures, and even cars as it spreads.
For those who miss the seasonal changes in color of the trees back East, we strongly recommend the ‘Roger's Red’ selection – its fall color is spectacular. You can also see a wonderful ‘Roger's Red’ at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden – four of them can be seen covering an arbor in the Cultivar Garden. (When they are in fruit, sit under the arbor and enjoy the bird activity!)
* Update 2010: ‘Roger's Red’ was initially selected by Roger Raiche, and has been grown and sold now for 25 years, with the assumption that it was an aberrant fall leaf color form of the native grape, Vitis californica. However, according to Roger Raiche: “Jerry Dangl, a researcher at Foundation Plant Services, UC Davis, has finally resolved the origin of the ‘Roger’s Red’ selection. Indeed, as many suspected, it is not pure Vitis californica. His DNA analysis shows that it is a first generation hybrid (F1) between the native V. californica and a wine grape (Vitis vinifera) cultivar known as ‘Alicante Bouschet’. This grape, ‘Alicante Bouchet’, is unusual in that it has both red skin and red flesh – most red grapes and red wine gets its color from the skin only. Jerry Dangl plans on doing some more analysis before officially releasing his findings. ”