Wineberries—The Forbidden Fruit
- ---Lana in Southeast Michigan
Now, I doubt that you'll find these 'forbidden fruits' offered for sale. Wineberries are considered invasive, and generally only appear on 'hit lists' of unwanted plants. You probably heard about them on the show that aired the weekend of June 12th, during my interview with Peter Del Tredici, a Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. We discussed his provocative and highly controversial book, "Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast" (2010; Cornell University Press), in which Dr. Del Tredici suggests that many of the 'invasive species' maligned for bullying 'proper' plants out of the landscape could also be seen as successful adaptors that provide food and shelter for wildlife and are often unparalleled at controlling soil erosion.
Like the wineberry, an Asian member of the raspberry family that grows abundantly in the woods around my house. Like Dr. Del Tredici, I admired the ornamental quality of its arching red canes and bright fruits, which we both found to be delicious—although I had discovered their tastiness pretty much by accident.
I became a gardener to please my wife, who wanted more than anything to eat fresh picked raspberries in the summer. Luckily, raspberries are "easy to grow"—a phrase that is generally synonymous with 'invasive' and 'pestiferous'. As gardeners quickly learn, cane fruits like raspberries and blackberries spread by aggressive underground runners that have to be constantly deterred. The trade-off is delicious and highly nutritious fruits, produced on plants with near total invincibility. Raspberries' only enemies are poor drainage and rain at harvest time, which makes the berries moldy as they ripen up.
One year, when Spring was cold and it rained every day, we got NO berries from the early crop (most varieties of raspberry fruit twice on each cane; see our raspberry article for more details). Of course, the weather improved dramatically after the last raspberry had rotted, and the wild wineberries put on a bumper crop.
I had picked and eaten a few out of curiosity in previous years, and decided to collect a couple of quarts as a 'consolation prize' for the wife and kids. The verdict was unanimous; everyone in the house preferred wineberries to raspberries and I was instructed to thereafter harvest as many as I could, which I do every year.
The berries are both like and unlike cultivated raspberries. Commercial raspberry canes produce flowers that give way to little hard button shaped things that gradually develop color. Until they're fully ripe, raspberries resist picking; but when ripe, they pull away from the plant easily, leaving the inedible core behind. Wineberry flowers instead produce little pods (think "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), which eventually open up to reveal a berry inside. But these on-so-strangely-bred berries (which are rounder than the cone-shaped fruits of raspberries) also come easily off the plant when ripe, leaving the core behind—just like raspberries.
I had always been told that wineberries were "an escaped ornamental", originally grown for their beautifully colored canes and colorful fruits (which were generally not eaten, just visually enjoyed). But while researching this piece, I came across several references to them being brought to this country for use as breeding stock to create new varieties of commercial raspberries. Either way they escaped, and the red canes and bright fruits have become a familiar sight in forests and other uncultivated areas.
The topic of plants deemed to be invasive is as thorny as the canes of these berries. Are they really displacing other plants by virtue of their success? Almost certainly. Has the history of plants always been one of displacement and succession? Almost certainly. Nature is never static, and the rules of Darwin guarantee a constant changing of the guard.
I do not encourage gardeners to plant any botany that has earned the invasive label. And I congratulate those who protect, breed and enjoy plants native to their area. But I do not support waging war in the woods with herbicides; or any actions that, however well intentioned, result in habitat loss and soil erosion.
Every summer, as we 'pick' side by side, I can see that songbirds love wineberries every bit as much as my family does. I can see that the tangles of their canes provide a protective habitat for many forms of wildlife; and that the superb rooting ability of the plants is unsurpassed at holding soil in place. These are not small achievements.
But whether the named species are plants or people, it's hard to keep emotions in check when a 'least wanted' list is on the table. Still, the berries persist; appearing every summer for everyone to enjoy. Try one sometime; you might like it.
...That's the news from my little garden; where the plants are strong, the birds are good looking, and all the berries are well above average....