Blackberries: Robust Rubus, Food & Weed
Anyone who forages will eventually collect blackberries and blackberry scratches. These aggregate fruit are among the best-known berries in North American, if not the world.
As a kid I can remember collecting wild raspberries long before wild blackberries, though I don’t know why. Blackberries are standard foraging fair (see my article about Dewberries.) What most people don’t know is that blackberries are a two-year plant, some say three years. The first year it sends up a tall cane, replete with thorns. The next year it flowers and has blackberries then dies. Some would add that the cane stays on another year and with its thorns to protect the patch. (I should add though that there are some naturally thornless blackberries.)
Blackberry leaves were in the official U.S. pharmacopoeia for a long time treating digestive problems, particularly diarrhea. Their dried leaves make an excellent tea even when you’re healthy. We presume blackberries have been eaten for thousands of years by native American Indians and used medicinally. The ancient Greeks considered the species good for ailments of the mouth and throat and for treating gout. Interestingly blackberries were found in the stomach content the Haraldskaer Woman, an iron age bog body found in Denmark in 1835 but killed around 500 BC. Her last meal was millet and blackberries. Scholars think her death was probably a religious ritual. The millet would have been standard Iron Age fare. Maybe the blackberries were a special treat. Those blackberries would have also put her execution in early summer, perhaps to ensure a good fall harvest by appeasing an agricultural god.
For all their antioxidants and vitamins blackberries will mold within a couple of days of picking if not refrigerated. Do not wash until time of use because that, too, promotes mold. They ripen around June in the south, July in the north, give or take a few weeks. Locally they can be ripe by early May or totally past season by the Fourth of July. Picked unripe berries will not ripen. Black berries are also a good source of potassium, phosphorus, iron, and calcium. The seeds have Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.
Insects and wildlife like the blackberry as well. This includes honeybees, bumblebees, Little Carpenter bees, Nomadine Cuckoo bees, Mason bees, Green Metallic bees (my favorite) flies, wasps, small to medium-sized butterflies, skippers, hairstreaks, and several species of moths. Fowl like the berries such as the Greater Prairie Chicken, Wild Turkey, Bobwhite, Ring-Necked Pheasant, and various mammals from the bear to rabbit. In fact I recently saw a rabbit nibble on blackberry along a local bike trail.
In the rose family, just how many species of blackberries there are is anyone’s educated or non-educated guess. Some argue a few species with a lot of varieties and others argue for 250 or so species. Generally, ones that crawl are in one group and those that form canes are in another group. Then there are numerous unintentional and intentional hybrids, such as the Loganberry, Youngberry and the Boysenberry. Even the raspberry is a Rubus. The name, Rubus (ROU-bus) is the Dead Latin name for the blackberry and it means red hair. There are several native local species. R. argutus, R. cuneifolius, R. flagellaris and R. trivialis (see the above Dewberry entry.) The ones I harvest annually I think are escaped cultivars in that they produce large, sweet berries consistently year to year.
Russia grows most of the world’s commercial blackberries, some 24 percent. Next is Serbia and Montegegro at 23%, the United States with 13%, Poland 11% and Germany 7 percent. Blackberries are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica. However, in Tasmania and Australia the species are officially noxious weeds. Think about that: And edible plant on the noxious list. Must not be too hungry in those countries. In 2003 the Blackberry, Rubus occidentalis, became the official fruit of Alabama.
Lastly there is one interesting note about aggregate fruit. At least one expert says 99.99 percent of aggregate fruit are edible (such as blackberries, mulberries, logan berries et cetera.) Personally I would have liked to have seen listed the non-edible .01 percent.
Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile
A woody shrub with canes that grow up but often bend over sometimes re-rooting. The canes grow the first year and fruits during the second year, then they die. Canes are 3-6′ tall; green at the growing tip, elsewhere brown or reddish brown with stiff prickles, straight or slightly curved. Can be am inch through at the base. Leaves alternate, usually trifoliate or palmately compound; long petioles. Leaflets up to 4″ long and 3″ across; can be twice as long as wide. Leaflet is usually oval with coarse, doubly serrate edges; may have scattered white hairs on the upper surface, lower surface light green and hairy. Flowers, to an inch across, have 5 white petals and 5 green sepals with pointed tips; Petals longer than sepals, rather rounded, often wrinkly. Numerous stamens with yellow anthers. Blooms late spring to early summer for a month; little or no fragrance. Drupes, actually aggregate fruit, develop later in the summer; ¾” long and 1/3″ across,size varies with moisture levels. Berries at first white or green eventually turn red then black. Seedy, sweet.
TIME OF YEAR:
Depending on climate, spring to late summer
Full sun, neither too wet or too dry, mesic conditions
METHOD OF PREPARATION:
Numerous:; Fresh, frozen, canned, used for wine, making ice cream, juice, pies, jelly, jam, and best of all when eaten fresh on the trail. Dry leaves can be used for tea. Leaves can be dried as is or fermented which improves the flavor significantly. Fermented or not they should be dried. Young shoots can be peeled and boiled in one or more changes of water. Running the fresh leaves through the rollers of a pasta machine is a good way to crush them for fermentation.