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.
Blackberries grow and spread in two different ways. Those varieties with an erect aspect send up their new canes from the roots. Trailing varieties have relaxed canes that sprout if allowed to arch and reach the soil; these are also known as dewberries, and loganberry and boysenberry are of this type. Trailing blackberries thrive particularly well in the northwestern United States.
If you’ve chosen erect blackberries, allow them to grow unpruned their first year after planting. In the following years, pinch them back to a length of three or four feet. Prune away the bearing canes at the soil line after you’ve picked the summer’s crop. When winter temperatures begin to moderate, take out any canes that have strayed outside their rows, and thin canes as necessary so that there are no more than a half dozen per foot of row. Trim back side branches to twelve to eighteen inches.
Trailing blackberries need the support of a trellis. Just a single strand of wire between posts will do. Tie the canes to the wire. After the harvest, your next maintenance task depends on your climate. In warmer zones, prune away the canes that have just borne fruit, then tie up the new canes in their place. In the north, you can protect these tender new canes from freezing temperatures by allowing them to lie on the ground, covering with mulch, and taking advantage of the insulating effect of snowfall. Tie them back up in spring.
You can grow thornless blackberries that produce mammoth fruit, Chester being a well-known variety. So why would anyone bother with snarly old blackberries? It seems that when it comes to berries, you can’t have it all. What a variety gains in size or yield or hardiness it may lose, if just a little, in flavor or complexity — qualities that are hard to quantify and impossible to show in catalog illustrations. The Chester blackberries at our place produce lavishly and dependably, year after year, and they even offer large pink blossoms in the bargain, but the berries just don’t have the inviting flavor of less-enthusiastic bearers. Some summers, if our other berries and the hedgerows are productive, the Chesters go unpicked.
The boysenberry is an exceptional blackberry-raspberry hybrid, discovered in 1920. It was languishing in an abandoned California field that had been tilled by farmer Rudolf Boysen. You can see and taste a bit of both parents in this offspring, but the boysenberry is its own berry, so to speak. The color is a soft reddish purple, and the taste is fruity and even a bit winelike.
The marionberry was developed in Oregon through the efforts of the USDA and is named for an Oregon county. From its introduction in the 1950s, it has become the most popular named blackberry. Production still is centered in Oregon, where the berry’s pronounced, distinctive flavor finds its way to jams, syrups, and many other products.
Another gifted cross thought to be between blackberries and raspberries is the loganberry. In 1881, a California judge named J. H. Logan spied the unusual canes growing in his home garden. The dark berries have a pronounced flavor and they are used primarily for juice, pies, and wine. In parts of the West Coast, loganberries have been supplanted by another hybrid, the youngberry, developed in 1905 by B. M. Young of Morgan City, Louisiana. To travel a little further along this complex family tree, a variety called Black Logan was crossed in 1950 with the youngberry to create the large and slender olallie in 1950. The olallie in turn was crossbred to create the marionberry.
Blackberries in the Kitchen
When picking blackberries, give them a taste test before you start dropping them into the berry bucket. They can look quite ripe but still be tart and insipid. Allow them to mature fully to bring out their flavor at its most intricate and intriguing.
Fresh blackberries are not readily available in stores because their quality suffers during shipping. Commercial varieties are sturdier than the wild form, but nevertheless they can turn soft, mushy, and moldy soon after being picked. When shopping for blackberries, be sure to check the bottom of the container to ensure that there are no moldy or crushed berries. Try to use them the same day that they are gathered or purchased, or by the following day at the latest. If that won’t be possible, spread them out on a cookie sheet, freeze them, then store them in the freezer in plastic bags. And as with any berry, you can stop time (so to speak) by preserving their goodness as a syrup or jelly.
Excerpted with permission from Berries (Countryman Press, 2017) written and illustrated by Roger Yepsen, published by Countryman Press, © 2017.