Blackberry-picking time has arrived

It is the wild berry-picking time of year. Sometime during the last half of July the first Little Wild Blackberries began ripening. These first fruits of their species are without a doubt the crème de la crème of wild berries. They are absolutely the best and rarest, if rarity is measured by how long it takes to fill a small bucket. Renowned chef Chester Beard called them, “The most prized treasure of all the woodland berries.” They are also the only blackberry native to Washington.

Time was when I relished hunting for these delectable gems in logged-off areas above Granite Falls. With the passing of youthful ambition came a period when I dreamed of picking more than I picked. That was followed some years later by a vague desire to want to pick. Yet tasting this year’s crop beside Kayak Golf Course’s fairways still stirs an urge to give it one more try, if only to pick enough to adorn a bowl of oatmeal.

A proper introduction to these taste-treats gets a little confusing because while most know them as Little Wild Blackberries, to scholars they are Rubus ursinus. Down the road a bit they may be Dewberries. In the next valley they become Wild Mountain Blackberries. By any name they taste the same.

Unlike their more obnoxious cousins, Little Wild Blackberries are the fruit of ground-hugging vines that snake through grass and ferns to ensure that picking is back-breaking stoop-work. But that can be eased if a picker whacks off a few feet of a small alder limb and trims it clean except for the stub of one branchlet left at the end. The product is a handle with a hook at the end for yanking vines free of undergrowth to inspect for berries.

Seeking out Little Wild blackberries may not equal the quest for the Golden Fleece but it comes close. When picking is slow I’ve spent an hour collecting a pint. It took coming home empty-handed from a literally fruitless search to understand that the $30 or more per gallon charged by professional pickers is a fair price. But there were enough past successes to keep me going back for some years. The absolute best picking was when I happened upon berry vines infesting a rotten conifer stump in partial shade. A punky stump wicks water up for otherwise thirsty vines, ensuring jumbo fruit.

Blackberries of any type are actually clumps of individual fruits, each with a seed, all gathered around an attachment to form an “aggregate” fruit. Blackberry plants are spread across the landscape thanks to their seeds’ ability to survive the harsh chemistry of birds’ digestive processes. It is amazing how the life-force within a blackberry seed can tolerate the acrid bird poo that can eat through the paint on a car.

The Himalaya and Evergreen varieties are inescapably common. They form the mountains of bramble that cover roadside ditches and entomb abandoned buildings. Their aggressive and invasive growth habit is enough to rightfully earn them the title of Kudzu of the Northwest. Though the growth pattern of Himalaya and Evergreen are similar, they are easily distinguishable by the Himalaya’s oval leaf with a slight point as contrasted with the Evergreen’s deeply lobed and pointed leaves.

The fruit of both is delicious. If they were as secretive about hiding their fruit as the Little Wild Blackberry, Himalaya and Evergreen berries might be thought of as more desirable. On the up-side, it is as easy to gather a gallon of their fruit as it is to collect a handful of the Little Wild ones.

Serious pickers of the Himalaya or Evergreen zero in on formidably thorny mounds of vine that may rise as high a barn. Standard equipment is a lightweight ladder with a rope dangling from the top rung. A picker tosses the ladder at the mound and then ascends to harvest choicest concentrations of berries. The downside is that the loose structure of berry canes may collapse, swallowing ladder and picker into its thorny midst. If all goes well, the picker descends with the fruits of his labor, pulls the ladder free with the rope and moves on to the next set.

Himalaya vines produce such an abundance of fruit that picking becomes more an industrial-scale harvest than the sport of ferreting out Little Wild Blackberries. A friend and I once picked so many Himalayas for a wine-making project that we ran short of gallon jugs to contain the juice. After much testing we deemed the wine a success and it proved to be an acceptable substitute for the box-type burgundy that accompanies mass spaghetti feeds. Though it couldn’t have garnered 95 points on the Wine Spectator scale, the wine’s flaws were forgivable because we did it ourselves.

Wine-making is a practical use of the Himalaya or Evergreen berries. Pies are not. The issue is hard seeds that wedge between teeth or embed in diverticuli causing pie bakers to reject them after a trial or two. But if you cook blackberries and strain out the seeds, the flavor is still excellent for jelly. Should the jelly not gel, it becomes syrup for waffles or topping for vanilla ice cream. Yum.

Though Little Wild Blackberries will disappear soon, the fruit of their brambly cousins will persist almost until the first frost. Enjoy. In this particular expression of nature’s bounty, there is plenty for all of us.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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