Twisted in legend and the birth of the nation, the oldest grapevine in North America still grows on Roanoke Island
By Kari Pugh | Photography by Daniel Pullen
On April 27, 1584, English explorers dispatched by Sir Walter Raleigh cast anchor off North Carolina’s Outer Banks and found themselves surrounded by an abundance of white grapes.
“We viewed the land about us, being whereas we first landed very sandy and low towards the waterside, but so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them …” Master Arthur Barlow wrote of the mission in a report to Raleigh upon the mission’s return. “… We found such plenty, as well there as in all places else, both on the sand and on the green soil on the hills as in the plains, as well on every little shrub as also climbing towards the tops of the high cedars, that I think in all the world the like abundance is not to be found …”
Led by British Navy Capt. Philip Amadas, the expedition had landed on Roanoke Island across the Roanoke Sound from what is now Nags Head. Based on the findings of those early explorers, Raleigh attempted to establish the first permanent English colony in the New World three years later. What happened to that ill-fated settlement, now known as the Lost Colony, remains one of American history’s most enduring mysteries.
The colonists vanished. But 400 years later, the vine remains.
Called the Mother Vine, it’s believed to be the oldest grapevine in North America and its lore is as twisted as its ancient roots.
Keepers of the vine
The grapes still grow in Carl Curnutte’s front yard along an out-of-the-way, well-manicured residential street on the Roanoke Sound. The gnarled roots climb a 6-foot black locust wood frame, forming a canopy covering a third of an acre along Mother Vineyard Road. Every year, it produces white scuppernong grapes, a variety of muscadine grape that only grows wild today on Roanoke Island.
“It’s definitely a place of beauty,” Curnutte said. “It’s part of the history of the Outer Banks.”
A few years ago, Curnutte moved to the house and became the latest keeper of the vine. When owner John Wilson IV, whose family bought the property in the 1950s, proposed Curnutte move in, he found the task of protecting the Mother Vine daunting.
“I was definitely overprotective when I first came,” he said.
In 1957, Jack and Estelle Wilson purchased the land, which was then covered in about two acres of thick, brambled grapevine. They cut it back so they could build their home, and ensured the remains of the vine flourished. For more than half a century, the Wilsons lovingly pruned, shared the sweet, white grapes with neighbors and wine-makers, and welcomed visitors who made their way to Mother Vineyard Road to pay homage.
Clustered in legend, true historical records about the Mother Vine’s ownership date to the 1700s. A century later, vintners were using its sweet grapes to create wines that made North Carolina one of the world’s top wine producers.
“Thomas Jefferson was a notable admirer of the scuppernong grape, ordering a 30-gallon barrel of ‘the pure juice of the grape’ in June 1823,” the North Carolina History Project writes.
By the turn of the century, North Carolina vintner Paul Garrett’s “Virginia Dare” wine was the most popular wine in the nation, thanks in part to its mysterious and storied origins.
A past as twisted as the vine
The vine’s lore may pre-date the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, with some believing the scuppernong grapes it grows were cultivated by the region’s Native American tribes. But the Mother Vine’s story is intertwined, at least in ghost stories, with the doomed English settlers who landed in the New World in 1587 and vanished without a trace by 1590.
According to one legend, the first English child born in the New World, Virginia Dare, was kidnapped by the Croatan tribe on the island.
When she grew into a beautiful young woman, she became the object of affection for both a handsome chieftain and a powerful medicine man, Chelsea Weger writes on the North Carolina Museum of History website. Eventually, the shaman decided if he couldn’t have her, no one could, and cast a spell turning Virginia Dare into a beautiful white doe.
Upon learning of the transformation, the chieftain set about to save his love with a magic pearl arrow that, if shot through the doe’s heart, would break the spell. But the ghostly white deer was also being hunted by other tribesmen.
Cornered in the maritime forest and shot in the heart simultaneously by her would-be love’s magic arrow and the silver arrow of the tribe’s chief, the white doe turned back into her human form, but died.
The end of the story takes various forms, but in one version the chieftain buries his lost love at the fort where she was born, “and from her blood, the Scuppernong mother vine grew,” Weger wrote. (And white deer are still seen in the area to this day.)
Taste of the Mother Vine
Under the vine’s cool and dark canopy, even leafless on a March day, it’s not hard to imagine a haunting white doe in the thick, knotted brambles, or sense the presence of those awed early explorers.
Curnutte feels the magnitude on a daily basis, but has learned the vine’s rhythm through the last few years.
“You start to learn its likes and dislikes, the impact of the weather,” he said.
Last year, the Mother Vine produced a bumper crop, which – like Jack and Estelle Wilson before him – Curnutte made into jelly and shared with neighbors and friends.
In 2005, the Wilsons permitted a local winery to take clippings to propagate the ancient vine, leading to the release of Rose Hill-based Duplin Winery’s collection of MotherVine wines, still in production today.
The Mother Vine is on private property, but Curnutte welcomes guests, with signs pointing the way for anyone who wants to make the pilgrimage.
“You want people to see it,” said Curnutte. “You want people to see it as part of our nation’s history.”