If you want to eat wineberry pancakes at Dan Van Allen and Katherine Fahey’s home, it would be a good idea not to call those raspberry-looking things bathing in batter and sizzling in a cast-iron skillet an “invasive species.”
No, no, no. Don’t do it.
Officially, they are called wineberries, and are nonnative. And they can be found right now blooming all over Baltimore’s wilder lands. The wooded edges of Leakin Park, Druid Hill Park, Wyman Park and Clifton Park are a good place to start.
Some experts point them out as examples of how a nonnative species outcompetes the local species. As old-timers would note, there was an era when wild blackberries could be plucked from the unkempt brush along roadways. Now, the wild blackberry is a rare find thanks to the thriving wineberries, first introduced along the Atlantic in the 1890s to support the raspberry crop.
But any narrative of the wineberry’s destructive impact on Baltimore’s woodsy edges is given a reprieve for these early weeks in July. When ripe, they taste amazing, a mixture of sour and sweet that teeters on the tongue — a wild hors d’oeuvre for the beginning of a Baltimore summer.
So why all the throwing of shade — especially for a berry that tastes best found in the shade, under the leaves, rather than basking in the sun?
“Well, the term invasive species is offensive,” said Dan Van Allen from his basement kitchen. “And it was a term that the Nazis came up with. It’s biological xenophobia.”
It may seem like deep in the weeds of political usage, but Van Allen said the vehemence for invasive species mirrors the anti-immigration fervor of yore and today, when self-proclaimed locals speak of the threat that immigrants pose to the so-called home society.
This quest for a purity doesn’t exist in nature, he said, and points out that it should sound alarmingly familiar.
“Berries are not an endangered species,” he said. “You can get all the berries you want at nurseries, they are just being crowded out by the wineberries.”
Charlie Davis is a botanist, and sees the correlation between pushing for a pure native landscape and the problematic, oppressive history that aimed to preserve purity in culture. Yet, he says, the term invasive is a scientific one, legitimately applied to plants other than those found here at the first landing of Europeans, that compete better than the native species.
“The real issue is not whether something is native or invasive,” he said. “The real issue is to preserve biodiversity.”
Davis said the mission of naturalists is to preserve the biodiversity that supports species found in a specific climate base. A local plant that is feasted upon by a local beetle, he said, is considered healthy for biodiversity, although the gardener might not think so.
At the same time, he’s seen people go overboard with all things native, decrying landscapers for even planting anything like a Japanese maple tree in their garden.
“We are always playing God, choosing what plants to plant and what plants to take away, and it’s no different with the wineberry,” he said.
Davis makes sure to dedicate part of his yard to the wineberries. Why? Because they’re tasty. But he also has local blackberries. And with the wineberry he is a bit more vigilant, since he knows their success is at the peril of native plants, and he cut them back so that he doesn’t play a role in their propagation — although the birds, specifically the gray catbird, are too swift, and as a result, he has seen small seedlings sprout around his property.
As if to illustrate the point of the berry’s tenacity, Denzel Mitchell Jr. was a bit surprised to see young wineberries sprouting up at the end of a recently mowed field along the thriving Black Butterfly Farm in Curtis Bay.
When it comes to native plants, Mitchell, co-executive director of Farm Alliance of Baltimore, has focused his work to enriching Baltimore’s plant scene. A portion of this field is dedicated to the revival of the Baltimore fish pepper, that he noted was originally given to African American slaves in Maryland by Indigenous people, and he hopes to help bring it back to local cuisine.
As far as wineberries are concerned, he sees them as invasive, but not in the same menacing category as kudzu, which grows vines throughout Baltimore woodlands.
“As a term invasive applies, yes, it takes up more space than what was intended, but is not as invasive and harmful as others,” Mitchell said.
Regardless, the city is ripening with these berries and so is Forage Maryland, a Facebook group of 10,000 members brimming with photos of hot spots.
Kara Mae Harris, author of the Old Line Plate blog, a robust culinary repository of Maryland cuisine, made note of a Maryland recipe for wineberry shrub and posted suitably thirst-inducing photos of an ice-sweating pitcher. She said picking wineberries today makes her nostalgic for when they would pick blackberries, then a more dominant berry, along the roadside around Greenbelt. She didn’t come across the wineberry until revisiting the stop-what-you’re-doing ritual as an adult.
“I love that stuff in childhood when you discover you can eat something out in the wild,” she said. “You know, it’s the feeling of independence, it gives you a feeling you could survive on your own.”
For Mitchell, who hails from Guthrie, Oklahoma, it wasn’t his first taste of the berry, but it was for his two oldest who tepidly tried the fruit of the woods.
“My daughter picked them and ate them and had juice around her mouth,” he said. “That was my memory like, oh, Baltimore is home.”
Just about any berry picker will have such first taste origin stories, including this reporter who grafts the berry taste to his first experience of entering the woods at age seven, bushwhacking with some kids at a day camp on Falls Road. Nothing tasted so sweet and sour as being a kid, tipping back a small paper cup half-dissolved with berry juice — try as you may to come back to that spot as an adult to relive the summery tang.
But then came the new experience of cutting into a stack of wineberry pancakes. The berries came from Doug Retzler’s Hoes Hill Orchard. He not only lets them grow, but slips them some water, and, as a result, they came in early and plump. As far as Katherine Fahey is concerned, it is the perfect pancake berry as she pushes each one into the batter.
“It’s really my favorite berry to put in the pancakes,” she said. “The other ones don’t keep as much tang. Like the mulberries a couple of weeks ago, they didn’t retain as much flavor as the wineberries.”
One pint produced about twenty pancakes, quickly consumed in their basement kitchen — a splendor in curated gewgaws, from a shelf of eclectic religious icons to long grasses that somehow thrived in subterranean light growing out of test-tubes. Their dining table offered a pitcher of mimosa tea, made from local trees, which are also is considered a troublesome, invasive tree in Maryland.
Although Van Allen and Fahey are veterans at cooking what they forage, the pancakes just being the latest, blackberries could be next. They savor the uniqueness of plucking food out of Baltimore’s wilderness.
To hammer home the moment, Van Allen picked up a copy Henry David Thoreau’s “Wild Fruits,” reading out loud how the naturalist said all the efforts to sail halfway around the world to fetch pineapples hardly compared to a kid eating a local huckleberry or an acorn.
“The bittersweet of a white oak acorn which you nibble in a bleak November walk over the tawny earth is more to me than a slice of imported pineapple.” — Henry David Thoreau
Charles Cohen is a freelance journalist, filmmaker and digital storyteller. He is a Baltimore native.