Grow delicious wineberries in your garden

It’s been a spectacular year in the garden for fruit. Apples, pears, plums even figs have all carried huge crops, but our great success story this year has been the Japanese wine- berries. Their Latin name is Rubus phoenicolasius and they’re closely related to raspberries and black- berries, although different from both. Wineberries fruit abundantly for about a month between late July and late August, which means that they fill a useful gap between the main-crop raspberries in June and July and the autumn-fruiting raspberries (and blackberries) in September.

Wineberries aren’t as sweet nor as succulent as their culti- vated cousins, but they have a delicious, refreshing flavour of their own and combine well when served with ripe peaches, melons and pears. They’re orange-red at first, darkening to a shining, brownish scarlet, and slightly sticky to the touch, which makes them easy to pick. And, unlike raspberries and blackberries, I’ve never found one with a worm in it.

The wineberry plant makes elegant arching growths, typically 2.5m (8ft) long, that are thickly encased in bright-red bristles. Soft to the touch and wonderfully pretty when backlit by sunlight, it’s by far the most ornamental of all Rubus species, so much better than white-stemmed R. cock- burnianus for coloured effects in winter. Even the sepals are daintily trimmed with bristly red backs.

What’s more, wineberries flourish almost everywhere (chalk, sand or clay even in dry shade) and perform reliably year after year; thier long growths wil tip-root like blackberries and quickly enlarge the size of the clump until you decide to limit further expansion. They even come true from seed, which explains why there are no selected forms or improved variations.

I asked Barry Clarke, who curates the National Collection of Rubus species at the Hillier arboretum in Hampshire, whether the wineberry plant has ever been crossed with other species I had visions of creating huge and lus- cious hybrids by crossing it with some of the larger-fruited black- berries but he replied that ‘Rubus phoenicolasius doesn’t accept pollen, although it does produce active pollen that allows it to cross with other species’ like blackberries and raspberries. He added that he had ‘crossed it with a few species, but they never have come to anything special’.

Actually, it’s present in the breeding of the early-fruiting raspberry Malling Minerva, but it’s difficult to say just what the wineberry has contributed, because Malling Minerva also counts the North American raspberry Rubus occidentalis and the Korean raspberry R. crataegifolius among its ancestors. It’s certainly a very heavy cropper.

We had such a bumper crop of wineberries this year that we had to freeze some and we wondered whether their taste would be affected. The surprise was to discover that, when unfrozen, they had a distinctly raspberry-like flavour fresh raspberries, not cooked. But the same is true of wineberries in cooked puddings, for example, in a crumble or a cla- foutis their taste is reminiscent of cooked raspberries, although less acid. And yet, freshly picked, wineberries have a distinct, original taste like no other soft fruit.

Horticultural pundits say one should cut out the wineberry’s stems when it’s finished fruiting, to encourage new growth. However, I find it needs no encouragement and the old stems die away anyway, as with spent rasp- berry canes, and are easier to remove in winter, when I can see what I’m doing and the weeds don’t get in the way. You can grow wineberries in a fruit cage, tying them in like blackberries, but we find that so few are stolen by birds that it’s not worth the effort.

The wineberry’s invasive nature has made it a nuisance in New England, where it’s said to threaten native plants, but I welcome it as ‘a good do-er’ in the garden that doesn’t needs any attention what- soever. It suits my lazy, non-inter- ventionist attitude to gardening quite perfectly maximum reward for minimum effort.