Growing Blackberries

Learn about different types of blackberries and how you can grow your own.

| January 2018

Berries (Countryman Press, 2017), by Roger Yepsen presents a variety of berries to readers, including types that have nearly vanished from American gardens and diets. This book offers key advice on finding, identifying, growing, and preserving your own berries. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Blackberries.”

The wild blackberry truly is one wild berry. With its aggressive thorns, sprawling habit, and complex flavor, it has presence — both in the landscape and when eaten fresh or in recipes. To the Iroquois, the juice from the rugged plant was believed to make a person resistant to cold weather. They have a legend in which a young boy chased away Hatho, the frost spirit, by throwing hot blackberry sauce in his face; ever since, the spirit has remained hidden in his northern lair from when the blackberries blossom until after the fruit is fully ripe.

Thoreau, our savant of meadow and forest, named this fruit the favorite of his berries, placing it in his personal pantheon along with the white pine and the hermit thrush. But it would be like Thoreau to pick a somewhat difficult berry, just as he claimed to prefer pocked, scabby wild apples to cultivated orchard fruit.

Until not all that long ago in human history, blackberry bushes were regarded as an aggressive weed, not to be invited into the garden. Attitudes became more charitable as open land began to disappear in America’s populous areas. People began to dig up blackberry plants to place in a corner of the yard where they couldn’t get into much trouble. Pampered with good soil, the briars tend to be more productive. Still, these berries weren’t considered on a par with other species. In The Anatomy of Dessert (1934), Edward A. Bunyard bashed the blackberries of his native Great Britain, calling them a “fruit for out-of-doors” rather than something suitable to serve as dessert, while the American varieties “are good for cooking purposes only.” It may be that the blackberry’s well-known reputation as a home remedy for digestive complaints made it difficult for people to think of it as a delicacy. Up until the late 1800s, blackberry wine and brandy were commonly sold as over-the-counter nostrums to calm an upset tummy. If these products or the fresh berries couldn’t be had, both city and country folk would brew a digestive tea from blackberry roots. An over-the-counter tincture still is commercially available.

Blackberries in the Yard

The best blackberries you’ll ever taste may be lurking in a hedgerow near you. The cultivated, named varieties aren’t necessarily any more flavorful than those that have been growing wild for centuries, and some may be noticeably less so. If you find a productive, good-tasting patch and can get permission from the landowner, you might try transplanting a few blackberries to your garden.

If you want to grow blackberries, wild or cultivated, keep in mind that these plants will sucker freely, requiring you to cut, mow, or pull the new canes. Relative to raspberries, blackberries can take more heat and will put up with less cold, making them a better choice for backyard growers in warmer zones. Prepare the ground and set out plants as described for raspberries.

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