Saving Wild Vitis: The Conservation of North American Native Grapes Workshop

By the North American Grapevine Conservation Working Group

Photo by Rachel Martin (Oak Spring Garden Foundation); see caption below.

Genetic variation provides the foundation for plant breeding. And in viticulture, the diversity in native North American Vitis species is critical for generating resilient grapevines. For example, numerous cold-hardy North American Vitis species have been used to generate the hybrid “French-American” scions commonly cultivated in midwestern and eastern vineyards. And phylloxera-resistant North American species are used as rootstocks for V. vinifera varieties both in North America and around the world. Ongoing adaptation of grapevines to changing climates, disease pressure and consumer preferences requires access to the wild grapevine germplasm that offers nearly unlimited sources of natural variation for breeding improved scions and rootstocks that are better-suited to future needs.

Although decades of work by many different groups have yielded significant resources for these invaluable vines, there is no coordinated conservation strategy in place for native North American Vitis. The North American Grapevine Conservation Working Group is now working to change that.

With the goal of conserving native North American Vitis and ensuring access to the germplasm, a diverse group of 20 scientists came together on November 7-11, 2022, at Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Upperville, VA, to begin drafting a plan for conservation. Participants (listed below) included taxonomists, viticulturists, grape breeders, conservation biologists, land managers, plant biologists, and leaders of the living Vitis germplasm collections in Davis, CA, and Geneva, NY. For three days, they presented data, reviewed existing resources, and identified gaps in knowledge and conservation efforts targeting native North American Vitis species.

Inspired by the work of Colin Khoury, who took part in the workshop, the team took their cue from the “Road Map for Conservation, Use, and Public Engagement around North America’s Crop Wild Relatives and Wild Utilized Plants” (Khoury et al. 2019). It provides guidance for conserving crop wild relatives—plants that are closely related to agricultural crops—as valuable genetic resources used by plant breeders to increase pest and disease resistance, stress tolerance, nutritional profile, and other traits critical to productivity, quality and sustainability. “Many of these species are threatened in their natural habitats,” according to the road map, “and most are underrepresented in plant gene banks and botanical gardens. These conservation gaps limit the portfolio of useful plant diversity available to present and future generations.” Coordination among plant conservation, land management, agricultural science, and botanical education and outreach organizations are critical to securing, enhancing the use and awareness of these species.

At the November workshop, a comprehensive conservation plan began to shape, underpinned by these high-level objectives:

1) Conduct conservation status assessments that document geographic distributions of wild Vitis populations, assess threats to their natural habitats, and determine gaps in their conservation.
2) Protect wild Vitis populations in their natural habitats.
3) Collect and conserve wild Vitis species in ex situ collections.
4) Make wild Vitis accessions more accessible and attractive to plant breeders, researchers and educators.
5) Raise public awareness about the role of native North American Vitis species in global viticulture and the importance of their conservation.

This important work is just getting started and could provide genetic solutions to future sustainability and even viability challenges for the grape and wine industry. The group is now meeting monthly to advance North American Vitis conservation. Current activities include drafting a scientific manuscript describing the roadmap for Vitis conservation following Khoury et al. 2019, and generally advancing the objectives above. The group hopes that, through these activities, more people will understand what’s at stake for these vines and help promote their conservation.

And maybe that’s where you come in… If you would like to be involved—you don’t have to be a plant breeder or geneticist or biologist—contact Anne Frances, USDA-ARS at

In addition to Oak Spring Garden Foundation, the Conservation of North American Native Grapes Workshop was organized by NatureServe, the US Botanic Garden, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

The North American Grapevine Conservation Working Group includes: 

Matt Clark (University of Minnesota)
Peter Cousins (E. & J. Gallo Winery)
Peter Crane (Oak Spring Garden Foundation)
Destiny Davis (US Botanic Garden)
Luis Diaz-Garcia (UC Davis)
Devin Dotson (US Botanic Garden)
Beth Forrestel (UC Davis)
Anne Frances (USDA-ARS)
Peter Giovannini (Crop Trust)
Tremain Hatch (Virginia Tech Agricultural Research & Extension Center)
Claire Heinitz (USDA-ARS, Davis, CA)
Colin Khoury (San Diego Botanic Garden)
Wes Knapp (NatureServe); Erin Galarneau (USDA-ARS Geneva, NY)
Nan McCarry (NatureServe)
Abby Meyer (Botanic Garden Conservation International)
Allison Miller (Danforth Plant Science Center/Saint Louis University)
Ray Mims (US Botanic Garden)
Lucie Morton (Morton Viticulture)
Mizuho Nita (Virginia Tech Agricultural Research & Extension Center)
Susan Pell (US Botanic Garden)
Surya Sapkota (Cornell University)
Carol Spurrier (USDA Forest Service)
Emily Warschefsky (Missouri Botanical Garden)
Jun Wen (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)


Photo caption: Some of the participants in the North American Native Grapes Workshop. From left to right: top row: Surya Sapkota (Cornell University), Luis Diaz-Garcia (UC Davis), Jun Wen (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History), Colin Khoury (San Diego Botanic Garden), Devin Dotson (US Botanic Garden), Emily Warschefsky (Missouri Botanical Garden), Matt Clark (University of Minnesota), Tremain Hatch (Virginia Tech Agricultural Research & Extension Center), Mizuho Nita (Virginia Tech Agricultural Research & Extension Center), Wes Knapp (NatureServe); middle row: Erin Galarneau (USDA-ARS Geneva, NY), Abby Meyer (Botanic Garden Conservation International), Lucie Morton (Morton Viticulture), Claire Heinitz (USDA-ARS, Davis, CA), Carol Spurrier (USDA Forest Service); bottom row: Allison Miller (Danforth Plant Science Center/Saint Louis University); Anne Frances (USDA-ARS), Nan McCarry (NatureServe); Peter Giovannini (Crop Trust).