Walk any of the Rye Nature Center trails during the summer and you're bound to find wineberry. If you're lucky, you pluck and eat the bright red berries before the birds and mammals get to them. FRNC summer camp kids love to find and eat the berries, and even get to make wineberry sorbet as a treat. Wineberries are in the same genus as raspberries and blackberries, with a texture and flavor that is similar to both. These bramble fruits are not actually berries, but rather aggregates of drupelets. A wineberry can be differentiated from raspberries and blackberries by the fine red hairs covering their stems and buds, their silvery under-leaves, and bright red berries when ripe.
This native of China, Japan, and Korea was introduced in the 1890s as breeding stock for raspberries and, less than 100 years later, they were found invading natural areas. These perennials are very hardy in our ecosystem because when the tip of the stem touches the ground, they can root a new plant. The cane stretches about three feet, and starts producing fruit in its second year. Once established, they can survive and reproduce almost indefinitely, while their dense, spiny thickets reduce habitat for native plants and animals. They are now found in most states east of the Mississippi River.
Wineberries are listed as a "prohibited" invasive plant in New York State, which means that they cannot be "knowingly possessed with the intent to sell, import, purchase, transport or introduce." As international trade increases, so does the rate of invasive species introduction. This leads to the loss of habitats and native plants and animals, loss of recreational areas and income, crop damage and diseases in humans and livestock.
Around the year 2000, various ecologists started to recommend eating plant and animal invasives, such as wineberry, as a way to control their populations and to bring attention to the damage they wreak on a habitat. With a renaissance in eating local, organic food and the farm-to-table movement, being an "invasivore" came into vogue. In a 2004 Audubon article, Joe Roman, a conservation ecologist at the University of Vermont proposed that since humans have been hunting species to extinction for eons, maybe our voracious appetites could help drive down invasive populations. But does this actually work? For a more in-depth discussion of whether putting invasives on the menu actually helps the problem, check out this Scientific American article.
--Rachael Pothula, Early Childhood Education Specialist