Wild berries are ripening across America, and the race is on among man and animals, birds and insects, to see who will get theirs first.
Blackberries are the largest and most recognizable of the wild fruits. They are easy pickings from thickets along quiet roadsides, from shrubs in sunny meadows, growing across mountain faces and paralleling seashores from Texas to British Columbia.
For people who respect property rights, wild blackberries generally are free for the taking. But that doesn't mean you won't pay a price if you aren't wearing the proper uniform - long pants, long-sleeved shirt and boots. Be prepared for chigger and mosquito bites, skin rashes from poison ivy or sting nettles, scratches and shredded clothing from the thorny canes and the potential for Lyme disease from infected deer ticks.
Despite all that, berries have become the darlings of the fresh fruit industry, says Matt Ernst, an extension associate with the University of Kentucky department of agricultural economics.
"Health benefits, particularly the antioxidant levels, and the fact that they just plain taste good have consumers of all ages eating berries at unprecedented rates," Ernst says. "Blackberries especially appeal to our sense of nostalgia; many Americans still remember picking wild blackberries at some point in their lifetime."
Aside from seeking blackberries in the wild, people are growing them in their gardens, gathering them from commercial pick-your-own operations or buying them hand-harvested and fresh from the field at farmer's markets.
"Some Kentucky farmers are planting and marketing blackberries locally as an alternative crop in the wake of declining burley tobacco production," Ernst says.
Creating new varieties
More than 2,000 varieties of blackberries are believed growing across the Northern Hemisphere. Loganberries (a blackberry/raspberry hybrid), boysenberries, thimbleberries and marionberries are among the most common of the wild berry siblings. Blackberries often are confused with raspberries, their domestic cousins, but there are some differences. Perhaps the easiest way to tell them apart is that blackberries, when picked, come with a core attached, while raspberries are hollow.
Plant breeders are building on what nature has so abundantly provided by producing hardier varieties, larger and sweeter berries and friendlier or thornless plants. "New cultivars released by the University of Arkansas and others over the past decade or so have especially caught the eye of many producers and the palate of many consumers," Ernst says. That includes the Cherokee, Comanche and Cheyenne varieties (with thorns); the Apache, Arapaho and Ouachita, among others, which grow thornless.
Keeping fruit fresh
Blackberries are delicate and highly perishable. Here are a few tips for preventing spoilage:
¢ "Wait to do your picking until the berries are ready to almost fall off into your hand," says John Strang, a fruit and vegetable crops extension professor with the University of Kentucky. "If you pull a berry off the bush with some red in it, it will be pretty acidic. It will taste sour."
¢ Pick blackberries in the morning before the temperatures rise and while the fruit is still firm. Don't wash them until just before they're served.
¢ The sooner berries are refrigerated, the longer they'll last. "They're black; they absorb sunlight very quickly," Strang says. "Unlike many other garden products, they won't get any sweeter or riper once they're off the bush. They're at their highest quality when you pick them."
¢ Spread the berries around in shallow, airtight containers so they aren't bruised or crushed beneath their own weight.
The University of Arkansas introduced two hardy new plants this year for temperature-sensitive areas, which up to now had limited the spread of blackberry production. Blackberry plants generally don't fruit until their second year. Extreme cold routinely kills unprotected first-year canes if they over-winter in harsh conditions.
The new Prime Jan and Prime Jim varieties produce fruit in their first growing season, allowing blackberries to be gathered anywhere the summers are long enough for the plants to mature.
Growing your own
Having the new cultivars available doesn't mean you can't transplant canes from a favorite stand of wild plants. But that would come with some large horticultural red flags attached, not the least of which are the threat of disease and the plant's invasive tendencies.
"Cultivating and propagating wild blackberries is not usually recommended because of disease (and) virus problems inherent to wild stock," Ernst says. "In fact, it is always recommended that the home gardener or farmer eliminate nearby wild brambles before establishing a blackberry or raspberry planting.
"Proper soil drainage and site preparation, as well as a trellis or other means of allowing good circulation to the canes, are also important for establishing blackberries."
Training plants to grow on trellises, walls and fences or row cropping the blackberry patch also helps maintain some control. Blackberries are capable of growing 9 or 10 feet tall, eventually becoming an impenetrable tangle of sharp, thorny canes. You can thin much of that unwanted growth by running a tiller between the rows, pruning the plants aggressively or eliminating emerging new canes. Ignore them at your peril.
It doesn't take many blackberry plants to satisfy an entire family. Yields can range from one-half gallon to two-and-one-half gallons per plant. That makes for a lot of freezing and canning - flavorful jams and jellies, pies and cobblers. Or, simplest and perhaps most enjoyable of all, you can eat the berries fresh, dappled with cream and sugar. Learn to ignore the seeds.