This spring and early summer have given us strange weather; lots of rain, then really hot and dry. Now we’re settling in to what looks like a regular summer around here: mostly warm and humid, with two or three days a week that threaten thunderstorms. The difference between a wet year and a drought year depends on whether those storms actually materialize.
So far this season we’ve enjoyed some strawberries, then red raspberries from the garden, but this time each year there’s a treat that we can’t cultivate; we’re just lucky enough to be surrounded by wild wineberries!
We call them the jewels of the roadside; indeed they gleam brighter than any other berry we know. You can see them along the highway before they ripen, on long thorny stalks are little clusters of what look like buds, but are actually berries that grow inside a husk or outer covering. Before long the outer shell curls back and within a couple of days the berries are gleaming bright red.
The berries themselves are seedier than most, sometimes a bit smaller, but they have a flavor not quite like any other berry: sweet but tart, a bright, somewhat sharp tang. The season is short – so when the time arrives we have to make a couple of trips to our favorite roadside turnouts and gather what we can. Nothing’s better on vanilla ice cream or with plain yogurt!
There are hazards to picking wineberries; besides the traffic on the busy roads. We’ve spotted a huge growth of them on a steep hillside above a blind curve with no shoulder – each year we pine for those, but have to let them pass. More there than ever this year, but there’s just no way to safely pick them.
And wherever wineberries grow, there are other plants that are their typical companions. The most common of these constitutes another hazard – poison ivy!
I know there are some people out there who don’t seem to be affected by the dreaded Toxicodendron radicans, but we are; and if you are you know how miserable and itchy a rash even a slight touch of those shiny leaves can produce on exposed skin. And even if you wear boots, long pants, long sleeved shirt and gloves, don’t touch that clothing afterwards until it’s thoroughly washed. Think the wineberries aren’t worth the risk? Well, maybe not, but never fear. There’s another roadside jewel to help us out!
Jewelweed, or Touch-me-not is a wild species of the impatiens. You’ll notice a similarity in the soft texture of the leaves and the succulent stems, though the flowers themselves are quite different, pendulous little yellow or orange pitchers, inviting the bees to pollinate. The touch-me-not name comes from the seed pods, which when mature spring open at the slightest touch, casting the seeds about the area. But those succulent stems are the valuable part, to us. Simply crush a bit of jewelweed in your hands and rub the juices over your skin and Voila! Immunity to poison ivy!
Now I’m not sure this works for everyone, so you may want to try your own experiments to be sure, but when we have gone in search of wineberries, finding them on a hillside covered with poison ivy, we have simply waded right in, even in shorts and sandals, after the jewelweed treatment. Yes, we washed well with lye soap afterward, just in case, but no rash or itching! And it works after exposure as well, if applied soon enough. So when I inadvertently touch poison ivy while weeding or mowing, a quick trip to the stand of jewelweed has always kept me from suffering the discomfort and blistering that would have been inevitable.
When my son Tim takes his produce to the New York City greenmarket at Union Square, the chefs and other regulars descend upon many of his unusual and delicious items. Several times, when we’ve been able to pick enough, he’s brought along a couple dozen half-pints of wineberries. They disappear in a flash!