Stalking the wild blackberries

by Rich Heffern

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A blackberry is not just an electronic device; it’s a fruit. I spent a good part of last weekend picking wild blackberries on my brother’s farm in south Missouri. It was the peak of their season. The picking task itself, on a warm, windy July morning, was not completely pleasant, with annoying little flies diving for my ears, predatory ticks lurking, and, of course, the thorn-bristling cane vines that persistently messaged “Wait a minute!” as I got tangled up in them. Puffy clouds scooted overhead. Wildflowers still brought their dots of color to the hillside. I disturbed several towhee birds, while two or three indigo buntings sang brightly in the nearby pine trees.

Last night my wife Linda made a cobbler and eight pints of jelly out of the harvest of this wild fruit that played a role in the history of the country.

Blackberries helped get the Pilgrims through their first summer. Today the same fruit grows wild across America, free for the foraging. Colonists called blackberry bramble bushes “lawyers” because their stiff, sharp thorns grab hold of you and don’t let go until they’ve extracted some blood. But that didn’t stop colonists from plucking all the fruit they could from the plant that was native both to the Old World and New. The blackberry harvest is so delicious that even today we try to overlook the thorns and give the plant the name not of the cane but the fruit.

For early American settlers, the best part of blackberries was that they grew wild — at least the colonists didn’t have to plant them. Months before the Pilgrims’ first crops came in, for instance, they likely found ripe blackberries in the woods. Scientists have discovered that many of those wild berries had been managed or cultivated by America’s native population. Even without native care, the plants thrived on their own throughout New England and much of the rest of the country. And they still do.

Today blackberries are just one of many overlooked wild foods that grow everywhere in America’s urban, suburban, and rural landscapes. These renewable resources range from the so-called “weeds” that people either remove from lawns or buy at premium prices at greenmarkets or health food stores to the abundant, delicious, healthful wild fruits and berries that thrive in thickets everywhere from Central Park to Big Sur.

Wild blackberries are among the best of these fruits on many grounds. They’re common, widespread, abundant, prolific, easy to recognize, tasty, and nutritious. It felt good to bring them into our lives -- despite the lawyerly thorny canes -- fostering a greater love for the ecosystems that produce them.

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