by Marilyn Odneal, Horticulture Adviser
(Mountain Grove) – This year, we are harvesting Sunbelt grapes in the first half of September at the State Fruit Experiment Station at Mountain Grove. Sunbelt, as the name implies, was developed at the University of Arkansas to be the “Concord of the South.” Last year, when the weather was very hot and dry, our Concords did not ripen evenly. The clusters remained a mix of dark blue, red and green berries due to the heat and were difficult to use. Our Sunbelts, on the other hand, ripened evenly and all of the berries in the cluster turned blue at about the same time despite the heat.
Sunbelt is a seeded grape cultivar that was released from the University of Arkansas Breeding program in 1993. Like Concord, its large berries in small clusters are slipskin – the skin does not adhere to the pulp but slips off when squeezed. They taste like Concord too, but generally ripen earlier at Mountain Grove. As far as winter hardiness, Sunbelt is similar to the very cold hardy Concord. The vines are vigorous and easy to establish as long as you keep your eye on weed control and regular watering if needed in the first couple of years after spring planting.
Sunbelt is a good all purpose grape that is easy to harvest. It is not attractive to birds, so netting is not required for protection. It is great for fresh eating and for making juice, jams, jellies and pies. In fact, Sunbelt juice was rated as good to better than Concord. It also can be made into a Concord style wine.
Sunbelt is even more disease resistant than the mighty Concord with moderate resistance to black rot and anthracnose and high resistance to powdery and downy mildews. Japanese beetles may like it, but it has large leaves and can withstand light damage without a problem.
Edible landscapers find Sunbelt very useful in home plantings. Due to its winter cold hardiness, its large leaf canopy, its disease resistance and the fact that the birds don’t care for it, it is an ideal grape to use for arbors and trellises where people gather for shade. Even if you plant it in a row, due to its disease resistance, it will look good even with a low spray or organic production program.
So if you are thinking of planting an all purpose grape that is easy to grow and maintain, consider Sunbelt. It is definitely a great grape for the Ozarks – unless, of course, you are a bird.
Direct comments or questions concerning this column to Marilyn Odneal via email at MarilynOdneal@missouristate.edu; write to Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station, 9740 Red Spring Road, Mountain Grove, Mo. 65711; or call (417) 547-7500. Visit our Web site at http://mtngrv.missouristate.edu.