Nursing The Nation's Oldest Grapevine Back To Health

The Mother Vine, considered the nation's oldest cultivated grapevine, is sick. In May, a contractor for the utility company Dominion Power sprayed the vine with a powerful herbicide. Melissa Block talks to John Wilson, whose family has been trying to nurse the Mother Vine back to health.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Mother Vine is sick. We're talking about a grapevine on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. It's thought to be the country's oldest cultivated grapevine, maybe 400 years old. Well, in May, a contractor for the utility company Dominion Power sprayed it with a powerful herbicide.

Since then, the Wilson family has been trying to nurse the Mother Vine back to health. The family owns about half the property where that vine grows.

John Wilson joins us phone from Manteo on Roanoke Island to tell us about the vine's progress. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN WILSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: And tell me first what the Mother Vine looks like when she's healthy.

Mr. WILSON: She covers about a quarter of an acre now, and she's very large in circumference. If you and I stood around her and stretched out our arms, we would have trouble touching one another.

BLOCK: Wow, huge thing and then centuries old, and what kind of grapes?

Mr. WILSON: Scuppernong, white grapes. It's a kind of muscadine.

BLOCK: And so everybody down there would know about the Mother Vine?

Mr. WILSON: Absolutely, for generations. Everybody - almost everyone in North Carolina knows about the Mother Vine.

BLOCK: Well, what happened with this herbicide?

Mr. WILSON: In the spring, the power company had contractors on the island, cutting limbs and trimming areas around wires. And evidently, they had a truckload of Garland 4A, a pretty nasty herbicide, and sometimes - they simply sprayed from the truck around the power poles.

And the Mother Vine had one little tendril, no bigger around than a pencil, growing up a power pole, and they sprayed it. And I guess the wind was blowing because it killed part of my dad's hedge, it killed a number of very old limbs in a pecan tree, and it started to kill the front corner of the vineyard.

BLOCK: The front corner of the Mother Vine, you're talking about.

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

BLOCK: And what did that look like? How could you tell?

Mr. WILSON: It just all turned brown and crispy, and my dad was out cutting all the deadwood out. And the next day, there would be some more, and he would cut some more. And the next day, there would be some more.

The herbicide is systemic, and it was sending the poison from the ends of the vine back toward the root. So each day, he would cut, and the next day, it would be dead a little farther back.

BLOCK: Well, that's got to feel terrible.

Mr. WILSON: It was very distressing to my father. He has been honored to be the steward of the Mother Vine for the last 50 years, and he certainly didn't want anything to happen to her on his watch. So he called N.C. State's Department of Agriculture, and the university stopped what they were doing and sent representatives - as did the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. And they all examined her and offered opinions, and found us North Carolina's finest viticulture arborist, who has been here several times and is back today, working on the vine.

BLOCK: And what are they saying to do?

Mr. WILSON: Today, they're here thinning, to let some sunlight in. They have shocked her with nitrogen and salt and fertilizers, and my dad has been watering every two and three days. So she's getting a lot of attention, and we think she's going to be okay.

BLOCK: You do?

Mr. WILSON: We hope so. The first month, it was very concerning but right now, we're all optimistic.

BLOCK: Maybe she's stronger than we all would have thought.

Mr. WILSON: You know, if she's made it 400 years, I think she's going to make it through this, too.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Wilson, we'll all keep a good thought for the Mother Vine. Thanks for telling us about it.

Mr. WILSON: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's John Wilson, talking with us from Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His family has been tending to the Mother Vine since it was sprayed with a weed killer in May.

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