Blackberries, A Forager’s Companion

by Green Deane

in Antioxidants, Edible Raw, Fruits/Berries, Greens/Pot Herb, Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Plants, Vines

The center core remains when blackberries are picked making them slightly bitter. Photo by Green Deane

The center core remains when blackberries are picked making them slightly bitter. Photo by Green Deane

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.)

Ripe blackberries can be yellow or red but usually they are black.

Ripe blackberries can be yellow or red but usually they are black.

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

IDENTIFICATION:

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

ENVIRONMENT:

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.

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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat Droukas September 12, 2016 at 14:55

Is the white in the center of a blackberry safe to eat or is it some sort of mold. this is the first time I have noticed it. I bought them I a grocery store. Thank you

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Green Deane September 12, 2016 at 20:12

The white center is edible but bitter.

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Ann July 28, 2015 at 14:16

Has anyone heard of blackberry scratch poisoning? I had a knot come up on my arm where I had been scratched while picking berries. It is the size of a half dollar now and very hard. I haven’t found any thorn in it. Have put antibiotic ointment on it but hasn’t gone away for a week now.

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Kat August 14, 2015 at 22:34

hi,
I once was picking a plant and got a rash, and found out it was not THAT plant, but another, or a bug. I then went back to the spot it happened, and found a bad plant. it was so long ago, I don’t remember the exact details.

hope this helps!

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Tubby June 1, 2015 at 15:46

Here in the Puget Sound region, Himalayan (Chinese/Asian/etc.) Blackberry is on County and State noxious weed lists because it is a true curse on the land, rapidly choking all pasture, streambanks, road margins, and backyards with thorny canes, outcompeting everything and destroying all other plant life, even English Ivy. It only takes a few years for impassible Blackberry thickets to completely cover undefended ground.

The plant is horrible even though the berries can be delicious (some cultivars produce better berries than others).

Since much of the plant is subsurface, it cannot be removed by weeding or mowing or burning unless those are repeated meticulously every few weeks for several years.

Only chemical weeding is effective. The best agents combine triclopyr and 2,4-D with a detergent or solvent (avoid glyphosate/Roundup; it does not bother Blackberry). I recommend “Crossbow” brand herbicide. It is properly applied selectively to Blackberry leaves and canes in the late spring on days when rain is not expected.

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Magnus Homestead March 27, 2016 at 19:34

I myself have never found it necessary to use chemical poisons on BlackBerry patches. A pair or more goats will take care of them with minimal maintenance. There are folks out there that will rent goats for that purpose even. As to the plant itself, the berries are indeed excellent. The taste will vary from habitat and such. Also the first year shoots can be peeled and eaten either raw or blanched. The leaves are very high in protein and good for the goats (they eat stem, leaves, thorns and all). The leaves can be used for a tea and the root bark can be used to stop diarrhea. So if my book, Himalayan BlackBerry in one awesome plant, if consciously controlled. llamas will also take care of the BlackBerry and are easier to fence, but perhaps slower than the goats. Blessings all.

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Cait April 4, 2015 at 18:54

Hi, I was wondering about raspberry shoots. I’ve read that when peeled, wild raspberry shoots are edible – have you tried this? As well, is the same true for ‘domesticated’ raspberries?

Thank you 🙂

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Green Deane April 5, 2015 at 21:31

Yes, peeled raspberry shoots are edible…. but I think that is the opinion of someone who has spent a winter without fresh food….

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Jack October 12, 2014 at 07:01

I read on the Guardian that the blackberry leaves are edible raw, what do you reckon?

Thanks!

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Green Deane October 12, 2014 at 09:06

I think they are better dried.

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jizzo4shizzo September 25, 2014 at 19:01

i forage for for (in order in which they ripen) wild strawberries, sweet cherries (risky biz though…very wormy), wild eastern black raspberries, wild red raspberries ; wild blackberries, wild spiny gooseberries and wild elderberries.

a perfectly ripe, eaten right off the bush blackberry is one of the sexiest fruits i’ve ever tasted…its a shame blackberries are cultivated poorly year round and shipped everywhere… gives them a bad name…when a perfect specimen tastes like cotton candy!!! (southern ontario)

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amanda mills August 31, 2014 at 13:52

Hi, I live in the UK and we tend to have blackberry bushes in abundance on wasteland. I have fond memories as a child of picking blackberries and my mother making pies and jams from them. I have always carried on this tradition only now I’m not only picking the berries but its me that’s making the jam. There is nothing more satisfying than having picked your bounty for free, cooking the berries and the wonderful aroma of warm blackberries filling the kitchen, then when the washing up is all done, seeing the jars neatly stacked away and knowing that you have this harvest treasure to fall back on all winter. In the UK this year we seem to have had a bumper crop but its sad that many people don’t seem to be picking them, maybe jam making has gone out of favour? I think home made is certainly better than shop bought and I will always continue to make jam.

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Robert James August 5, 2014 at 06:12

I have several acres of Himalayan blackberries at my home in Skamania county, Washington. They produce new plants by seeds or from their roots (rhizomes). These are locally considered a curse which requires a lot of effort to control.

But the berries are good.

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Leslie July 14, 2014 at 17:46

Can you pick blackberries (early) while they are red and then have then ripen off the vine? Or do they really need to ripen on the vine?
I am having a bumper crop this year !

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Green Deane July 14, 2014 at 18:46

They do not ripen well off the vine. The color may change but they do not sweeten.

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Wekiva Wanderer June 13, 2014 at 13:49

I have many fond memories about blackberries from my childhood in Oregon. They would grow in every hedgerow along with the poison oak so harvesting blackberries came at a price but that did not stop my mother from send us kids out to pick as many as we could and she made the best pies, jellies, and sauce out of our harvest. She would always freeze some of the sauce so we would have something to put on vanilla ice cream when it was out of season. Flocks of cedar waxwings would descend on the bushes when the berries had fermented in the sun and get drunk such that they would fly into the side of our house. We would leave them alone and soon they would fly away. I also remember that my mom always soaked the berries in cold water for awhile before doing anything with them and we were always amazed by the number of small insects that floated to the top of the pot after hiding in the lobes of the berries. I supposed they were harmless protein when eaten off the bush.

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Vic Cherikoff June 4, 2014 at 18:29

If you want your wild food harvest to last more than a few days, dip them into Fresher4Longer. This natural antimicrobial is made from essential oils from ordinary herbs and spices and kills the fungi that make fruits and vegetables rot.

Food I forage include mulberries (black and white) and a host of wild Australian fruits – Illawarra plums, riberries, bunya nuts, midyim berries, warrigal greens and more. They produce in huge quantities as most are trees or productive shrubs and so storing part of the harvest is the norm.

Dipping in Fresher4Longer vastly improves the shelf life and preserves the nutritional quality, sometimes for months for chilled fruits. It is also brilliant on store-bought cherries, strawberries, melons, fresh herbs and salad greens.

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Becky June 4, 2014 at 09:11

I live in rural Ga., and love wild blackberries. In the part where you discussed the wildlife that enjoyed eating blackberries, you didn’t mention snakes. My grandfather always used to warn me as I picked the berries: “Now, snakes like blackberries, too, so watch where you step. Rattlers in those bushes!” So stomp as you enter thickets to reach the tastiest ones, and walk slowly so the snakes will have time to exit.

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Spencer Petri February 21, 2014 at 18:14

Here in East Texas there are three types of “blackberries.” The dewberry which trails along the ground, a smaller upright blackberry which we call mixed berry and the blackberry which usually grows in damper locations on erect stems. In days gone by it was easy to find terrapins around the berry patches but now the coyotes have decimated the population.

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Nina December 20, 2013 at 20:38

We have a patch of wild blackberry growing on the boundary of our property. Every year it flowers, sets fruit and starts to ripen and then the fruit dry out, go brown and eventually fall to the ground. We have only ever had about 2 edible blackberries. Today we inspected some dried berries mroe closely. One had some sort of worm or caterpillar in the core and the others were bug free but they were dried right through and brown in colour. Any ideas what could be causing this and why we aren’t getting any berry crops? Incidentally the foliage is lush & green.

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Meg September 2, 2014 at 18:18

Hi Nina, not sure if you’ll see this because it’s so long after you posed your question. I would guess that what your blackberries need is more bees! If you have healthy, flowering plants, and fruit starts to set but then dies, it’s likely that those flowers were inadequately pollinated and the plant basically discards them. If you don’t want to keep honeybees, you might consider raising Mason bees, which are early (before most bees are active) and wonderful pollinators.

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Rachel R. May 23, 2015 at 22:04

Thank for leaving this reply, even well after the original comment, as it helped me! I have bush cherries planted, and we keep having this problem. (I *thought* we had plenty of bees — my kids step on them! — but maybe not enough to keep up with the dandelions, clover, AND cherries!)

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Nina January 8, 2016 at 18:46

Thanks for answerring. Another year has gone by and this seasons fruit have done the same thing. Flower, set fruit, plump up and go red then drynout and die before ripening. The vege garden isn’t far away and all my tomatoes have ripened, plenty of pollinators seen buzzing around and even added a butterfuly and bee friendly flower garden just a few metres away but same thing is happening.

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grump bear September 12, 2013 at 17:30

It’s the second week of Sept & still blkberries! I juiced the last batch & got 2-qts of the best thick juice. I was tempted to make cider,but oh well. I did notice it was constipating which accounts for its ‘medicinal’ use,of course I probably drank too much at one time,close to a full glass. Like Pooh bear in the honey pot! I used a champion juicer which removed the seeds….& good oils,but did not have to remove seeds from my teeth for a week!

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Mickey August 31, 2013 at 04:56

I’m amazed that anyone would have any difficulty at all recognising blackberries of all things. They look (and taste) more or less the same everywhere. In some parts of Europe, brambles are the dominant plant by default in hedgerows and untended land. Ubiquitous and delicious!

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Laura July 23, 2013 at 17:19

When we were children (in the late 1970s/early 80s) my mother would keep my brother and I busy picking blackberries all summer. She’d boil them down into a sort of concentrated pudding called “kunkalink” (sp?), most likely from her RussianLatvian grandmother. Sadly, my mother died very young, and so I don’t have the recipe. If anyone out there has a recipe for a traditional blackberry pudding I would love to have it.

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melissa July 17, 2013 at 00:19

I’ve got a mess of Himalayans growing on my property, that I’m slowly trying to eradicate. Or at least get under control! I’ve been making cobblers and jam for the past few weeks.

Have you ever dried the fruit to use in tea?

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Barb Schanel July 15, 2013 at 16:03

Thank you for the explanation on what makes blackberries bitter. My son just brought in some thornless blackberries from a neighbor and they tasted absolutely terrible. However, if you simply roll them around on your tongue to get all the berry bits off the core and spit that part out, they are quite tasty! But still not as tasty as the wild blackberries we’ve also been picking and freezing.

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Randahl June 12, 2013 at 20:19

Oops I should have added they were in leaflets of three. No 5 or 7. At first I thought it was a poison oak but they never have thorns…or so I’ve been taught. Any thoughts would be appreciated!

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Green Deane June 12, 2013 at 20:37

A pciture posted on the Green Deane Forum would help.

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Hawklover March 31, 2014 at 10:00

Look at Greenbrier Smilax . It has tendrils and thorns. See if that is what you got.

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Randahl June 12, 2013 at 18:32

Green Deane, I was hoping you could help me with a brambly vine I came across on the edge of a wooded area in Plant City. The leaves were oval shaped, shiny and bright green, no teeth or lobes, but with fine, almost invisible hairs on the top and bottom, and thorny stems. I couldn’t find any buds, flowers, or fruit so I can’t help there…What would your expert guess be? I’ll keep researching in the meantime.

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richard May 7, 2013 at 12:28

For Tenn. So es 6&7 it is by the 4th of July that I go looking for blackberries. If drought I go sooner.

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richard May 7, 2013 at 12:29

That should be zones 6 & 7.

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Nan Roberts May 7, 2013 at 12:00

I live in Oregon. We have the same problem with Himalayans. They were an invention of Luther Burbank. He wanted big berries, easy to grow. They choke out our native Rubus, which is a crawler, blooms now and is,ripe in July. Smaller berries, better flavor. Not that I’m complaining about Himalayas to eat. We made pie and jelly. And just ate them. I wish I could get the roots out. I wonder how.

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CP August 31, 2012 at 16:40

I can’t think of any poisonous look-a-likes of blackberry either, all species in the Rubus genus are edible. The only thing I can think of that might be close is poison ivy, but that doesn’t have spines or aggregate berries.

As a Seattleite, I have a love/hate relationship with blackberries. Himalayan blackberries are very invasive, and of course they are spiny. They fill in the undergrowth of forests making it hard to navigate off-trail. On the other hand, they produce some of the sweetest, juiciest fruit, and are abundant and easy to ID. Many of the blackberry bushes are being cut down in the city and replaced with native plants. The restoration ecology educated side of me rejoices in that; the foraging peak oil side of me is saddened that such an abundant source of urban food is being taken away. 😛

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Jeff G July 2, 2012 at 00:01

I was on a bike trail the other day and I believe I came across some blackberries, but I was uncertain if it could’ve been a poisonous look-alike.

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Green Deane July 2, 2012 at 06:12

Hmmmm… leaflets for three, five and sometime seven, aggregate berry, spines… can’t think of any toxic look-alikes. I have read that 99.99% of aggregate berries are edible.

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Tabetha May 6, 2015 at 12:05

Hey Deane, what if you are harvesting the leaves in the spring before the flowers or berries set in?

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Green Deane May 6, 2015 at 16:42

As long as you dry them, no problem.

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Robert M. November 15, 2011 at 14:02

I eat them fresh off the trail also. I sometimes see someone with a cut open plastic milk jug full of Blackberries tied to a bungee cord around their waist. If you ask what they are using them for, the answer will almost always be pie.

The green stems of the Blackberry Briar/Bramble can be used to make woven baskets but I have found that it is more trouble than its worth dealing with removal of the thorns first. A good set of thick gloves and a knife to scrape off the thorns. Even then it is hard to escape the briars/brambles unstuck and they are vicious.

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Silvia April 21, 2015 at 13:02

hello w Im new to blacberries Id like to know if they need to be stemed before using them in a cake?

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Green Deane April 21, 2015 at 16:13

No, Blackberries do not need to be cooked before used in cakes or muffins et cetera.

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Lisa May 17, 2015 at 11:53

No, you do not need to remove he middle section as you do with raspberries.

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Green Deane May 18, 2015 at 15:30

The middle comes with the blackberry when you pick it (and we eat the core.) When we pick the raspberry the cores stays with the plant.

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