The Blackberry: The Humblest Jewel
If you were tasked with designing a wild fruit to represent western Pennsylvania, you might come up with the blackberry. Its familiar, arcing canes spread over logged hillsides and reclaimed strip mines, beside railroad tracks and across abandoned farmland reverting to woods. Blackberries are an unplanned bonus from hard-used land.
Such a luscious treat, blackberries lure us outdoors, and they’re family-friendly; even small children can reach the fruit, which ripens in mid-summer when more elusive edibles like morels and ramps are gone. Their winey flavor and the satisfying grit of their inextricable seeds suit our tastes. But here we like to earn our rewards, so even the blackberry’s thorns fit our regional ethic.
We can even claim the world’s flagship blackberry variety as our own. Blackberries are members of the Rose family (Rosaceae), which besides ornamental roses also includes apples, peaches and cherries. Some form of blackberry grows in most temperate parts of the world, with hundreds native to North America. Further subdivided, the blackberry belongs to the genus Rubus, one of the most complex and capricious groupings in all of botany. Some botanists recognize more than 700 different blackberry species, pointing out minute differences in the shape of leaflet tips or the breadth of thorns at their base. Other scientists are less fastidious, clumping the 700 into 200, or even 30 species, and writing off differences as variations within a type. Complicating blackberry classification, most species exhibit an easy willingness to hybridize, accepting diverse pollens left behind by bees to cross one subtly distinct type with another genetic outlier, presenting botanical organizers with another new challenge. Yet, amid that taxonomic morass, the most widely recognized blackberry of all is Rubus allegheniensis, the Allegheny blackberry, whose range across eastern North America bullseyes on western Pennsylvania. Our Allegheny blackberry is so distinct and stable that it’s also known as the “common blackberry” everywhere it grows.
That ebony nugget we call a blackberry is another enigma. It’s not a berry at all. In botanical terms it’s an aggregate of drupelets, and if you know blackberries, if you’ve pricked your fingers to stain your tongue purple, you’ll recall the cluster of tiny black globes attached to a white core. We think of the whole as a “berry,” but each globe (drupelet) is an individual fruit with a seed inside. Think of a peach as an example. A peach is a botanical “drupe,” a fleshy fruit surrounding a single central seed. Each of a blackberry’s clumped globes is a small version of a peach. If peaches grew as an aggregate, like blackberries, the “berry” would be bigger than a basketball.
In a blackberry patch, the most robust canes are void of berries. Each cane takes two years to produce fruit. In its first season, the cane puts its energy into growth. Blossoms and berries appear in the second season, after it has invested nutrients into reproduction, so the fruited cane appears drained and wan. But at any time, a blackberry patch will contain canes in both the growing and the fruit-bearing stage. Fruits develop from white rose-like blossoms that bloom in early summer.
It’s likely that no region has produced more gallons of homemade blackberry wine or more pints of blackberry jam than western Pennsylvania. I like to go out in the morning in late July and early August, when the air is still cool, when a song sparrow will sing from a crabapple nearby, and the glossy fruit is bejeweled with dew. I don’t mind the heat. Picking my way through a blackberry thicket, I like to feel the day warm as I gather mounds of black orbs, even the scent of which on my fingers conveys high summer in my part of the world.
Blackberries like full sun, so look for them in old fields and beside rural dirt roads. Sometimes, though, you will find the biggest, most luscious berries growing deep in a shaded thicket. Older people I knew as a boy called these “shade berries,” and if the fruits were proclaimed “big as a thumb,” you knew their picker had found a windfall whose location they were not likely to divulge.
If you find a good blackberry spot, make the most of it while you can. Prime blackberry thickets don’t last long. Ecologists term the blackberry an “early successional” plant, evolved to exploit sunny locations in the aftermath of change. As the woods around the thicket stabilize and mature, blackberry patches phase out of existence. Making the most of a blackberry patch, though, doesn’t mean tramping it into the ground. You’ll see this too often, where prior pickers have all but destroyed a patch in their lust to get the ripe fruit quickly, paying no regard to those who might come after, or to future seasons.
We’re not alone in appreciating the blackberry. When snow lies deep and long, as it did last winter, cottontail rabbits gnaw the outer “bark” of blackberry canes. When the snow melts, you’ll notice the rabbits’ bright gnaw-marks high on the stem where a rabbit shouldn’t be able to reach. As winter deepened, mounting snow lifted the cottontails ever higher to reach more blackberry bark when they needed it most. Bears and birds gorge on the fruit. Even box turtles seek out the fallen berries. Black bears can trample a patch almost as badly as human pickers, but bears are forgiven.
Picking blackberries requires no special equipment and no official sanction. There’s nothing to buy, maintain or license toward your enjoyment. A gallon milk jug is my primary vessel. I cut off the neck far enough down so that my hand fits into the top, but I keep the handle intact. My belt runs through the handle, so the jug hangs at my waist at the ideal height to receive berries, leaving both my hands free. When I fill the jug, I transfer that load to a 5-gallon bucket that’s stashed nearby and start again.
You’ll likely find yourself using one hand to hold and stabilize a cane while the other picks the berries. If you try to pluck berries from an unrestrained cane, the best will shake loose and fall, lost, into the leaf litter below. Fruit that dislodges easily favors dispersal of its seeds by birds and bears drawn to the sugar-laden lode. Mockingbirds, thrashers, waxwings and other avian fruit-eaters can snatch a ripe berry with ease, then fly off to some similar spot to deposit the seeds. A bear can strip a dozen berries from a cane with one lick, or by pulling the cane between its lips, heedless of thorns. Later, the bear drops piles of gut-softened seeds in massive numbers, likely in another spot that favors germination as it forages elsewhere for berries.
When I pick blackberries, I always wear a sleeveless shirt. If you wear a long-sleeve shirt to protect your skin, the thorns will snag in the weave. Then, when you pull your arm free, the cane will recoil suddenly and dislodge the best fruit. Picking bare-armed, the thorns will drag across your skin, but they will not snag as they do in cloth, so you lose less fruit. You also tend to move your arms through the maze of canes with greater care when your arms are unprotected. Besides, I like to feel the sun on my skin. A network of scratches and a suntan add another element of satisfaction to a full bucket of berries.
I enjoy simple, repetitive tasks that require no technical or mechanical acumen. Picking blackberries on a summer day fits that formula. As your fruit bounty mounts, you sense a kind of rhythm taking over your movements, calming your thoughts. Pick, drop, survey, step ahead; these are simple actions that exploit the bond between human eye and human hand, with a tangible prize in the bargain. Something very old is at work, resurrected for a while in our attention-splintered lives. We are not aware of how we thirst for it until we feel it happen.
I pick berries now for pleasure and connection to place, for the succulent fruit and the pies it yields. But I remember men who picked blackberries out of need. In Fayette County, in the 1950s and 1960s, blackberries grew in abundance among the ruins of coke ovens, and along the railroad tracks that hauled coal from the mines. The best, most long-lived patch sprawled across a place we called the “pitholes,” where coal shafts had subsided, leaving randomly scattered, cone-shaped craters, the breadth of an average motel room, across a hillside. Acrid smoke rose from some of the pits from underground fires, but blackberry thickets crawled throughout the craters. No trees could grow, so the canes basked there for years in a bonus of full sun.
When I was too young to gather berries myself, down-and-out men, some missing fingers, or an arm, from work in the mines, would come to the door carrying water buckets brimming with blackberries they’d picked in the pitholes, offering them for sale for whatever my mother would give. I do not remember her ever turning them away.
Once, many years later, my son Aaron was 8 or 9, and we were picking along a dirt road that skirts old fields in Ohiopyle State Park. We’d been at it all morning, and were scratched, sunburned and stained purple on the fingers, and likely our lips. But we had a good haul of berries. An expensive sedan came crunching along the road, dust rising in its wake. The car slowed, then stopped, but we could not see the occupants through the tinted glass, which reflected blue sky and white clouds. The passenger window slid downward at a mechanically uniform speed, revealing the face of a young woman, whose sunglasses reflected the same sky that had just disappeared with the window glass. The driver sat silent inside the car’s deep gloom.
“What are you picking?” she asked.
Her question surprised us, and we hesitated.
“Those are poisonous, aren’t they?” she queried.
“No, they’re delicious,” I said, stepping toward the car and extending a palmful of berries for her to sample.
Before I reached her, the window zoomed upward, reflecting again the glare of sky. Tires bit the gravel and the car sped away, spearheading a cone of dust.
I still wonder about that encounter.
When I have filled my buckets after a session of picking, I indulge in a ritual I am willing to confide. I select a dozen or so of the best “specimen” blackberries within reach and cram them all in my mouth at once. Then I face the sun and bite down, smashing them into a mass of blackberry sensory overload — winey, pungent, warm, and tartly sweet. Then I know I have been out among the land at the height of summer, and there’s not much I can do to know this better.
You can buy commercially grown blackberries in grocery stores now. They are large and uniform, nearly as large as “shade berries.” But I think their buyers get a bad deal. No red-tailed hawk screamed overhead at the produce counter, and no monotonous dry buzz of cicadas droned somewhere in the hazy distance. Store berries lack the waxy luster I see on wild fruits, and no heady fragrance lingers on still air. Bought berries to pile onto ice cream yield only a part of the reward of Rubus. The rest of it comes from being out there, piling them into a jug or a bucket, one by one.