Posted: July 15, 2011
As a rule, I do not recommend that you taste any wild plant unless and until you are absolutely certain of its identification and its safety. If there is any doubt, leave it out…of your mouth. Common sense, you would think, and yet I am still surprised when people bring in a berry for identification after they, or their children, have already sampled it. Not wise.
Notably, in midsummer, wineberries are frequently the berry under scrutiny. In this case, you can be certain that the fruit is edible, and, because of its distinctive identifying characteristics, you can be confident of its identification. But if you are not absolutely sure, have it identified before eating it!
Wineberries are a kind of raspberry. The scientific name, Rubus phoenicolasius, means “raspberry with purple hairs.” Native to eastern Asia, it was introduced into eastern America in the late 1800s for use as breeding stock in developing new raspberry varieties. It is still used in breeding programs today as well as in the detection of viruses harmful to other raspberry plants.
But it is also a good example of the adage that one man’s wildflower is another man’s weed. Wineberry is a vigorous grower that has escaped cultivation and can spread to form dense thickets, crowding out native plants in natural ecosystems. It is considered an invasive weed in many states, including Pennsylvania. It prefers moist soils in sun or light shade and is common in forests, fields, stream and wetland edges, open woods, and roadsides.
Wineberry grows quickly; it reproduces readily by seed, suckers, and rooting cane tips. Its upright stems, or canes, can grow to 9 feet in length, arching over to touch the ground, where the tips root to expand its reach. These canes are covered in gland-tipped red hairs, along with short spines, that give them a fuzzy reddish appearance throughout the year – a good identifying character.
The leaves are comprised of 3 roundish leaflets (main stems have leaves that may have 5 leaflets), with toothed margins, green above with purplish veins, and distinctly white underneath with a woolly feel – another good identifying feature.
The small pinkish-white flowers bloom in late spring, clustered at the tips of side shoots on 2-year-old canes, and are followed in about a month by the developing fruit, which botanically is not a berry but an “aggregate of drupelets.” What we call a berry, in all Rubus species, is actually a collection of small juicy drupes, each of which contains a seed, clustered around the receptacle, the cone-shaped core. In wineberries and raspberries, the receptacle is left behind when you pick the ripe fruit; in blackberries, the receptacle comes off with the fruit.
Wineberries color from green to yellow to orange-red to a bright and shiny scarlet-red when mature, usually from late June through July. As the fruit develops, it is protected by the calyx – a remainder of the flower – that is covered with the same gland-tipped red hairs as found on the canes, each of which exudes tiny drops of sticky fluid. The calyx folds back as the fruit reaches maturity. Ripe fruit will be shiny, bright red, and slightly sticky to the touch, with a yellowish-white receptacle – more good identifying characteristics.
Wineberries taste much like flavorful raspberries, but juicier and a bit more sour, and contain similar health benefits – a good source of vitamin C, antioxidants, minerals, and fiber. The berries are fragile and, once picked, last only a few days in the refrigerator, but they freeze well. They can be eaten fresh, or used in desserts, fruit salads, and sauces. They make wonderful jam and good wine, too. So, if life hands you wineberries, make wineberry pie!