Linwood Watson, MD
A Brief Ramble on Blackberry Brambles
Image credit: FeastandFarm.com
Few things speak to a rural Eastern North Carolina summer than a spoonful of Cool Whip whip cream on top of a sweet blackberry pie or cobbler.
Then, as the pie melts on the tongue, the sweet taste will remind one of days, often as a child, exploring and picking from blackberry thickets. Indeed, this wonderful berry is a solid way for all people, young and old, to slow down, see and hear Nature again, and become more full people- people with physical, mental and spiritual depth. Admittedly enhanced by the Cool Whip, but I digress.
First, after giving thanks, let’s talk about when to harvest. At least in central and eastern North Carolina (the Piedmont and Coastal Plain), many farm stands and berry markets will have fruit starting as early as late May and early June, especially mid June. In the wild though, if you are sampling blackberries brambles on the side of the road, mid to even late summer (July to Labor Day) may yield solid wild blackberry harvests. While some cultivated blackberries are bred to be thornless, most wild ones have legion thorns. As anyone who has eaten wild blackberries knows, navigating the thorns is a worthwhile task. The nice thing about many farmers markets and berry stands having ample berries in June though is that come July and August, many people with small home vegetable gardens (ie- your grandparents) are busy harvesting and enjoying the “usuals”- squash, tomatoes, peas, melons, snaps, butterbeans, and the like. With this seasonality in mind, you can use farm variety blackberries early in the summer, and then pick wild ones in (slightly cooler) summer evenings after vegetable garden work. Fresh eating, dessert making, jams, and jellies are favorite Native American uses we found, but many tribes also use the leaves and roots as preparations. Blackberries have long had high regard as helping digestion. Medically and physiologically this is likely due to the surprisingly high fiber content of blackberries, unlike many other soft berries.
When you talk about blackberries, inevitably someone mentions what relation do blackberries have to raspberries, as both are the genus Rubus. Color alone is not accurate, as there are many black raspberries. When you pick a blackberry, note it retains its slightly firm whitish core, or the receptacle. If you pick a raspberry though, the central “core” is soft and empty, no receptacle. This is also why raspberries crush easier and ship less easily. One trick besides the lack of receptacle to tell a black raspberry (or black cap) from a blackberry is that most black caps are lower to the ground than usual blackberry canes, and ripe black caps (again, the raspberries) have a white misty/foggy sheen, or “bloom” on their black surface when ripe. I mention black caps because they also grow wild in North Carolina, especially in the cooler northern counties. Note that while many blackberries are imports, especially from Europe, there are North American natives.
If you go out to find some wild blackberries, bear the following tips in mind. Don’t let these tips dissuade you from seeking wild blackberries, as their taste is awesome even when compared to well bred farm varieties. Still, a better time will be had if you avoid the pitfalls:
1. Watch out for poison ivy vines, which you can overlook as you focus on keeping your fingers from blackberry thorns! Wild blackberries and poison ivy go together like men’s fancy dancers and showing off-totally inseparable!
2. If picking wild blackberries form the roadside, watch out for and be cognizant of roadside spraying. Many tribal members lamented how roadside spraying has tempered gathering of blackberries, elderberries, and cattails.
3. One other roadside caution- in the clinic I see more cases of chiggers/red bugs from people working/exploring ditches than anywhere else. Red bugs must like the dry, disturbed soils like the berries do. Loose long pants may help here.
4. May and June, at least in North Carolina, is top tick removal time in the clinic. While not an entomologist, I suspect the ticks breed this time of year and are active-and then attack you as you perform your June blackberry picking. Your best tick defense, by far, is a thorough body check within 24hrs and prompt removal. Keeping the tick attachment time short, especially less than 12-24hours, is a superb defense against most tick borne diseases.
Now, here is one last idea. Put it on your calendar for next March/April. If you are in an urban Indian group and have a meeting ground, or perhaps your tribe has a community garden/tree area, what about raising your own blackberries? Raising you own food is the prime way to cultivate some natural stewardship.
Talking to an elder is a prime way to learn to grow blackberries, as it is fun and does not need replanting like an annual. Plus, if the elder has some transplants for you it provides reassurance that your variety matches the local climate. Pay special attention to any elders offering “family varieties” or blackberry canes that have blessed their family for years, as heirloom varieties need to be honored and maintained.
For the last 6 years I have had superb yields with the Ouachita variety, from the University of Arkansas, a major blackberry breeder. Ouachita is available from many local and online nurseries. It sends up vigorous, strong canes that need little or no trellising. (Trellises will help winter ice storm survival though!). Best of all, it is totally thornless. The blackberries are medium large, and very sweet, and this variety is resistant to rosette disease. Canes are large and prolific, often reaching 10-12 feet tall!
Once you have a variety, here is a basic schematic. Again, it often falls into place once you start doing it/seeing the plants:
1. Plant the small plants in March/ April. Pick a location with at least 6 hrs of sun or more. Mulch will help your soil and keep the young plants from drying out.
2. Let the canes grow, and if needed give a once a week heavy drenching if no rain for that week. Mulch and weed as needed but don’t let over eager kids accidentally pull up the plants!
3. As the canes get taller through August and September, give support as needed.
4. Let the plants overwinter. Remember when growing blackberries- you only get berries usually from canes that are a year old. Have faith and pray.
5. Come next spring, I suggest avoiding the temptation to apply a heavy mulch again. Why? Well, you don’t want to smother new canes that will soon shoot up explosively in April/May, as these new canes will supply berries for next year. So, by May/June you will have very fresh green canes that are 1-2 months old, and your taller, 1 year old canes full of blooms and berries.
6. When ripe, pick the blackberries, and when the one year old woody cane has fully fruited, you will note it start to wither and die. You can then remove these canes to make room for the newbie canes coming up. Some people suggest hauling away and burning these old canes to lessen disease. Regardless, removing the old canes does help berry patch airflow.
7. To further help your blackberry patch, put up a wren or bluebird box nearby. Old timers say wrens and bluebirds prefer worms and insects over your berries, and as such they make helpful companions. Plus, picking blackberries to the tune of young birds is always pleasant.
In summary, blackberries, wild or cultivated, are a solid way to get some “real food” nutrition and family enjoyment. Take your time with blackberries. Turn off your phone. Don’t get in a rush while picking. Smile and savor the desserts. Sit at the table a while on Sunday and talk with your family as grandma tells the same story (again!). After all, grandma won’t always be there, but the blackberry memories, and hopefully the blackberry plants, will be there-if you honor them. Many plants actually need humans, and if we are not haughty we know our life needs them. Honor comes most easily from being involved in a process- the finding, the raising, the picking, the washing, the cooking….all intermixed with some sweet snacking. Honor is anemic when it is solely a grocery store transaction. Go find some honor today….chances are good it is in a blackberry patch!
1. Bir, Sara. The Fruit Forager’s Companion. 2018. I have cited this book many times in other blog entries. Why? Because it is a superb mix of food, foraging and fun.
2. Thayer, Samuel. Incredible Wild Edibles- 36 Plants that can change your Life 2017. Again, this book has many blog citations, because it is great. Enough said.
3. NC Native Ethnobotany Interviews. 2 things here: You can best receive the privilege of “strength” from the land when you interact with the land. Picking brambles is such a power connection, displayed by our 3 tribes’ memories, smiles, and gustatory love. Second, I do believe the Waccamaw-Siouan people are the most cobbler and dumpling making people ever! Long live the People of the Falling Star.