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On a hot day, the Capital Crescent Trail is shady and cool and host to an endless string of bikers and runners gliding by. Intent on getting a workout, or getting home from work, no one seems to cast a glance at the small red dots punctuating the greenery along either side of the path.
Their loss! Upon closer inspection, the red dots look a lot like raspberries, except they’re shiny, not matte. When you pop one in your mouth, it’s got the same smooth bounciness as a blackberry, and a similar juicy, sweet-tart flavor. And there are tons, just tons, lining the path from Georgetown all the way to Fletcher’s Boathouse, near the Palisades. For an urban forager, it’s a veritable bumper crop.
According to Mary Farrah, an agent with D.C.’s Cooperative Extension Service, the plant is the wineberry, aka rubus phoenicolasius, a spiny shrub related to the raspberry. It’s found throughout most of the East Coast, with fruit that ripens in early July.
But, start talking wineberries with naturalist types and they’ll likely wrinkle their noses. “They don’t belong there—absolutely not,” says Farrah. Wineberries, it turns out, are invasive plants that were imported from Asia as breeding stock and have since managed to displace native vegetation. Lacking a full spectrum of natural predators, it’s able to out-compete local plants but simultaneously provides less food and habitat for local birds and insects.
So, you’d think cutting down on one of their main modes of propagation—that is, eating the berries, rather than letting them fall and root—would be encouraged. In fact, Chris Stubbs, chief of resources management for the C&O Canal National Park, where that section of the trail is located, admits, “I’d love nothing better than to have an army of people out there picking them.” But, according to park rules, taking the berries out of the park is forbidden, though Stubbs says he and his staff are about to revisit that.
Which leaves a couple options for fruit fans looking to eat the forbidden things. One is to seek out berries elsewhere. Wineberries tend to live in shady spots that haven’t been disturbed in a few years, and this area’s also pretty thick with blackberries that are ripening about now, says Matt Cohen, who runs the Natural Capital blog with his wife and leads walks in search of wild berries throughout the city. Insiders recommend checking out the western shore of the Anacostia River and Kenilworth Park.
The other option? Take your chances with the berries along the trail. Remember, it’s against regulations, and if those park police see you hauling out a full basket, you’re on your own.
Photo by Amanda Abrams