What's the right number of wineberries?
A dilemma: They are an invasive species, but taste so good to people and animals.
The race was on – for wineberries.
When summer is in full swing, the shimmering, juicy clusters of crimson miniglobes emerge on mildly prickly stems. Sometimes woodland diners of the animal kind get there first. But long before bright-red berries beckon in the sun, people come along to pull up the plants.
Alas, wineberries, despite their delicious taste and pretty appearance, are considered an “invasive species.” Rubus phoenicolasius, originally from Asia, is a determined grower, crowding out other plants.
It was brought to the United States late in the 1800s, intended to adorn and enhance gardens. But all too soon, wineberry vines escaped cultivated containment and began to “invade” the territories of native flora, crowding out original occupants such as viburnum, red elderberry, and herbaceous wildflowers.
That is why, resistant to their visual and gastronomic allure, some among the human species work hard to pull them out.
I certainly understand as well as sympathize and have often planned to join the “removal force” of volunteers. But there arises a confounding conflict of interest: I love the taste of wineberries.
Sometimes in early spring when I find the brambly vines along familiar trails, I stop, and with the best intentions, prepare to pull some out.
But then their white, dainty, miniflowers catch my eye, promising a crimson crop of beautiful berries, and I end up cheering them on as they grow.
In any case, the “invasives” evade complete eradication; even if one removes this bunch, there are plenty more in thickets, fields, and woods. They proliferate along the sides of roads to tempt unsuspecting travelers. Tartly sweet and sticky to the touch, the berries beg to be picked and are hard to pass by.
When you’re hiking, they slow you down; instead of striding rapidly along, you pause to pick “just one or two,” which rapidly become 10 or 20 more.
“That’s enough,” you firmly tell yourself as the sun is going down. But then, just a few feet up ahead, you see another clump of scarlet succulence, bigger still and boldly beckoning.
All this irresistible eating takes time and patience, too. You must examine every berry carefully before popping it in your mouth, or a little insect protein might sneak into your snack.
A variety of insects – spiders, bugs, and worms – are often leaders in the race and may have already dined on part of the best bits of fruit you planned to pick.
In addition, there are other hazards of which one must beware. Sometimes scrumptious berries grow most plentifully right in between large poison ivy patches, as if to taunt their pickers, “Reach me if you can.”
And all too often, the biggest, fattest, reddest ones hide deep within the center of the wineberries’ most brambly branches.
Neophytes to berry picking sometimes have to be convinced. When some city-slicker friends came to visit me, they’d never heard of wineberries before. (Apparently this variety does not adorn city supermarket shelves).
“Are you sure they’re not poisonous?” the visitors repeatedly inquired.
They watched me anxiously as I ate handful after handful of the fruit without adverse effects. Then they tentatively tried and loved them, too.
“Can we come back next week for more?” they asked.
“Sure,” I said, and felt a little guilty at propagating “invasive” wineberry lust.
The intentions of whoever brought those early Rubus phoenicolasius plants to our shores were good. Delightful and delicious, the berries can be used in tarts and cakes, as well as made into jams. Even their brambles are of the gentler kind.
But, as with many other things in life, abundance became “too much of a good thing.” That demonstrates once again the meaning of that marvelous word “moderation.”
“Will you really be able to remove them all?” I asked Nancy, the naturalist at our local nature preserve, about the wineberry eradication effort.
“No,” she said, “but we’ll pull out enough to control their spread.”
So we now strive to achieve that happy medium: There are far fewer wineberry vines this summer in the woods where I hike, thanks to the prodigious puller-outers. Yet, there are still enough for animal and human eaters to enjoy.
Everyone wins – with just the right amount of a good thing.