Wineberry: An Edible Invasive
Eat the Aliens!
Sometimes there's an irony to being a blog writer. When I was researching primary sources for information about wineberry vines (Rubus phoenicolasius, pronounced Rue-bus foe-knee-col-ass-e-us), I found out that the majority of the field research has been done by researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), where I work. To be fair, there are 16-19 research laboratories at any given time and over 200 on staff, so individual projects and research is hard to keep up with. Being at SERC is what has inspired my interest in the wineberry, because it is a widespread plant that produces fruit in July and has become a significant symbol of summer for me and the staff and volunteers I work with.
Where Does Wineberry Come From and Where is It Found?
Wineberry is an invasive vine that originates from Japan and eastern Asia, also known as Japanese wineberry or wine raspberry. It's in the Rosaceae or rose family and originally introduced to the US as a "breeding stock" for raspberry cultivars. It is close enough to raspberry and blackberry that it has been crossed with both. Wineberry can be found mostly in the Eastern US, from southern Georgia into parts of Tennessee and the Great Lakes up into Maine and Canada.
Typically wineberry is found in disturbed areas along forest and field edges with lots of sunlight. From my experience, they tend to not like full shade. Wineberry is often associated with successional (maturing/changing) forests filled with hardwoods, such as hickory, oak, and walnut. They like conditions that are similar to poison ivy and green briar, so I tend to always wear long pants and gators (leg protectors) when plowing through them. It's also not unusual to find blackberry vines mixed in with wineberry vines when berry picking, which makes for a colorful harvest.
What Does Wineberry look like?
Picture your standard raspberry cane (maxing out around 9 feet long) but then add red spiky hairs all over the stems and think of the stems arching up a few feet off the ground and then back down to touch the ground at the tips. The cane hairs don't fall off like a tarantula's hairs, but they are prickly and hurt a bit. The cane forms dense shrubby patches that are about waist to chest height.
The leaves of the wineberry are found in threes, the same pattern as poison ivy and the leaves are more heart-shaped than those of poison ivy. The underside of winberry leaves are also silverish. I think the leaf veins make the top of the leaves look a bit crinkled too, like clean laundry left in the hamper without folding.
Now here's the neat bit.....
Remember those hairs that I mentioned on the stems? They are glandular. This makes it sound like they have a medical condition, but really it means that they secrete a sticky substance from their pores (as anyone that picks them can attest to). The hairs resemble those found on carnivorous plants such as sundew (see below).
Carnivorous plants that have these hairs trap small insects in the sticky goo and then secrete a digestive enzyme to dissolve and then absorb their prey. This helps them get nutrients, including nitrates. However, in wineberries, the sticky substance just seems to be a defensive mechanism. The wineberry canes live in nitrogen rich environments, so technically they don't need the sticky insect-digesting droplets or glands, it just makes picking the berries more fun...especially because your hands are turned into human lint rollers that are sticky enough to pick up small cats, scampering woodland creatures, and household objects.
But What About The Berries?
I'm about to burst your botanical bubble here. Wineberries, raspberries, and blackberries are not really berries in the botanical/scientific sense. Technically they are an aggregate of drupes (this sounds Shakespearean). In botany a berry is a fruit that comes from ONE ovary of a flower, (mmmm...ovary fruits) but wineberries and raspberries are formed from the ovaries of many tiny flowers that are clustered together in aggregate. Each little red segment is a druplet that forms the drupe, which is called a "berry" in common terms.
While the wineberry fruits are developing they are covered by a calyx (leaf-like structures that look like something out of Little Shop of Horrors, that are also covered in hairs and sticky droplets of goo. When the fruits are young they are orangish red. As they mature they turn bright red and as they age they change to deep red (June-August). Below is a picture of mature wineberries mixed with blackberries from last year's harvest of about 8-10 quarts.
The nice thing about wineberry is that it has way fewer seeds than raspberries, and it's slightly sweeter. I also find that the water content is higher, which has some consequences for baking with it, especially for cobblers, tarts, and muffins so you may have adjust your recipe a bit. Also, fortunately, here in the US there is no native vine that looks like wineberry so there's little to no chance that you can windup harvesting or eating any berries that poisonous from a "look-a-like" plant.
What Make Wineberry Such a "Bad" Invasive?
Plants aren't "good" or "bad" but they can be destructive when introduced to areas where they have no natural predators. Wineberries spread by seed, and are beloved by anything from raccoons and deer to birds and box turtles. The seeds pass through the poop-chutes of animals and end up being widely distributed. Wineberry seeds must be scarified (roughed up) in a bird or reptile gizzard (pouch in the guts that has sand or tiny rocks), or other animal guts, before they can germinate well.
Wineberry can reproduce by vegetative means too, through buds that come off their roots and by new plants that sprout from the ends of the canes that touch the soil. The thick shrubby cane makes a dense barrier that shoves out and shades out native plants. The only good way to remove them is using manual removal (making sure to get the roots) and in some cases chemical removal of the stump of the shrub.
Eat the aliens! You can help control wineberry by eating the "berries" yourself. Of course you can go the mechanical route by pulling out the plants from the ground (root system and all) and/or using chemical treatment (not good but often necessary).
I know that spreading the seeds/vines isn't ideal, but I will say this....wineberry is already so widespread around the areas where we work and live that it's almost impossible to control and local wildlife has become reliant on the berries and vines. I make it a rule that when I pick berries (wineberry and native blackberries) that I always leave those at ankle height or lower for box turtles, chipmunks and other small woodland creatures. The wee beasties already have it hard enough that I don't have the heart to pick their food, despite its being an alien invader in their forests.
If you'd like to learn more you can read this extensive paper from the US Forest Service Federal database on plants. You can also find recipes for picking and preserving wineberries here http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/picking-and-preserving-the-wineberry-zmaz82jazgoe.aspx. There are also plenty of good recipes online, including home brew recipes for sweet wine, wineberry tarts with toasted almonds, wineberry pie, and more. Enjoy!