When I was a kid, one of the best parts of summer vacation was berry season. I’d grab an old peanut butter bucket or ice cream pail and head for the wood line. There, I’d wade into wild bramble thickets, dodging hooked thorns to pluck fat, juicy wild black-cap raspberries until my bucket was filled and my fingers stained deep purple. I probably ate as many berries as I dropped into my bucket; who could blame me? Those sun-warmed beauties held such rich, sweet flavor — dark, musky, far more complex than any so-called “wild berry” candy could promise. Even better, every so often I’d come across a patch of wineberry glowing like rubies. Those sweet-tart berries never made it to the bucket, you can count on that.
Raspberries and wineberries share a large, tangled family with blackberries, dewberries, and loganberries. Collectively, they’re called cane fruit or brambles. Purists will state that “bramble” only refers to cane fruit with sprawling, arching growth habits, excluding more upright varieties or those that form ground covers. For the sake of this article, we will use bramble to cover the entire group.
All cane fruit belongs to the genus Rubus, a group of between 300 and 750 species and hybrids. In general, brambles produce biennial canes from perennial root systems called crowns. The canes are typically woody and often armed with thorns, some wickedly so. Rubus is closely related to roses, apples, and strawberries; the family resemblance shows in their flowers, if not in the fruit or the plants themselves.
Bramble berries have an interesting form; clusters of fleshy “drupelets,” with each drupelet containing a seed. The clusters grow on pluglike remnants of the flower, called a receptacle. Botanists call them aggregate fruits. On some brambles, like raspberries and wineberries, the receptacle stays on the plant, while on others, like blackberries and dewberries, the receptacle slips from the plant with the berry. In either case, the berries slip easily only at the peak of ripeness.
Brambles are some of our oldest fruits, yet they’re also the most primitive and unimproved, largely because they need no improvement. We’ve been plucking berries from bramble thickets since at least before the last ice age glaciers began to melt. And why not? Brambles easily provide plenty of sweetness and nutrients to boot. The only effort needed in picking is avoiding the thorns.
Brambles give fruit so easily no one bothered domesticating them until recently. Medieval European gardeners would transplant superior raspberries to their gardens from the surrounding forest edges. Blackberries remained “unimproved” until American breeders took interest in them in the 19th century. Before that, brambles simply grew and sprawled where they pleased, rambling across forest clearings and disturbed ground, their seeds spread by birds, animals, and men. Once the seedlings took hold, the canes would spread quickly by root suckers and tip layers, creating patches and thickets.
Brambles require little to be happy. They prefer full sun and well-drained soil, but not much more than that. In fact, they do better in poor, stony soil than in rich, deep soil. They’ll appreciate a yearly side dressing of compost, but no other feeding is needed. Most cultivated varieties do well in USDA Zones 5 through 8, with certain red and black raspberries pushing north as far as Zone 3.
Keeping Them in Check
Left to their own devices, brambles can be thuggish in the garden, escaping their confines, invading nearby beds, and muscling in on their neighbors. Without control, they spread like something from a horror flick, sending up shoots from far-flung root systems, and in the case of blackberries and black raspberries, tip-rooting new plants wherever their canes contact soil, “walking” away from their bed. Control your bramble patch by trellising the canes, and by mowing around the bed regularly. Remove any escaping shoots ruthlessly.
Brambles also need to be pruned yearly, or they will become an impenetrable thicket of tangled canes. While the underground crown can live for a decade or more, the individual canes only live for two years. Each year the crown will grow fresh canes, replacing older canes in a constant rotation. Most brambles produce their crops only on second-year canes, called “floricanes.” But some, the so-called “everbearing” varieties, bear an early fall crop on the tips of first-year canes, or “primocanes,” followed by an early summer crop on lower, lateral branches of second-year floricanes. Second-year canes die almost immediately after fruiting. These dead canes need to be removed each year to open the patch for easy picking and to remove possible sources of disease and insect pests.
Pruning a bramble patch may seem impossible when you’re staring at an overgrown thicket, but look a little closer, and the dead canes become apparent — bare, dried, brittle, and lifeless, decorated with spent fruiting laterals and a few crumbling leaves. Grab a pair of leather gloves, hand pruners, and loppers, and dive in. Cut each one out as close to the ground as possible. At the same time, prune primocanes back to about 4 or 5 feet in height to promote fruiting laterals next spring, and to control their sprawling tendencies. Don’t worry, any mistakes you might make will be replaced in a year, anyway. Some growers choose to sacrifice the second-year crop, “pruning” beds in late fall with a lawnmower set to the highest cutting height possible, removing floricanes and primocanes alike. Note that this only works with everbearers that fruit on primocanes.
Bringing up Brambles
While raspberry plantings can live up to 20 years, their production often declines after about six years, thanks to viral infections. University extension offices recommend starting with virus-free nursery stock, removing wild sources of infection, and removing infected canes. They also acknowledge that eventual infection is inevitable, recommending establishing new beds with disease-free cultured plants in fresh locations every few years. If you don’t mind the risk, you can probably get some starter plants from a friend’s patch needing to be thinned. Just understand that you’ll be giving up a few years of production.
Another option, if you have a tree line already populated with raspberry brambles, is to capitalize on the wild berries. They won’t have the provenance of a name, but they still taste just as sweet, and because the birds are constantly reseeding new plants, they never seem to decline. Blackberries and their hybrids don’t seem to be troubled as much with viral diseases, and do not suffer the same slow decline.
Brambles are still more than half wild, hybridize readily, and plantings are replaced often, so antique varieties often fade into obscurity. There are older noteworthy varieties still available. Consider the following brambles for your own patch.
Caroline is a red raspberry, productively bearing two crops each growing season of large, conical red berries with sweet, intense flavor. Developed by Cornell University, Caroline is an offspring of Heritage, Autumn Bliss, and Glen Moy raspberries. The canes exhibit good disease resistance across the country. Caroline bears in late June and from August through the first frost, earlier in the South. Red raspberries typically spread by suckering, and rarely tip-root.
Despite their fruit color, golden raspberries are varieties of red raspberries bearing sweet, milder fruits. Fall Gold is an everbearing variety, cropping on the top third of first-year canes in early fall, and again, lower on second-year canes during early summer. The fruits are large, golden, and taste remarkably like Swedish fish candies. In fall, prune the top third of first-year canes after they finish bearing, along with dead second-year canes.
Introduced in 1934, Bristol offers excellent black raspberry flavor. It fruits on second-year canes in late June to July, bearing large crops of excellent-quality, glossy berries. Fall pruning the canes back to 5 to 6 feet encourages larger fruit and keeps the patch manageable. Black raspberries tip-root easily, starting new plants wherever the canes contact soil. Black raspberries are also more susceptible to viruses and other diseases; keep them removed from other raspberry plantings if possible.
Wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius), or wine raspberries, are a beautiful species, bearing glowing garnet, sweet-tart berries on arching, hairy red canes with few, fine thorns among light green leaves. After the flowers fade, the sepals remain, enveloping the developing berries until just before they ripen. Native to eastern Asia, wineberries are largely “unimproved.” There are no named varieties to speak of. Any selection, whether purchased or transplanted, is sure to please.
For thornless blackberries, consider Triple Crown. This variety bears large crops of large to unbelievably large berries over an extended season in mid to late summer. Fruit quality is complex and sweet, especially when picked fully ripe and soft, when the berries lose their glossy finish. The canes are strong and semi-erect, tending to trail along the ground if left unpruned. Cut back to 4 to 5 feet, they’ll stand tall and be easy to manage. Left to ramble, they will tip-root readily. Thornless varieties tend to be less winter hardy than their thorny brethren.
Marion, also called Marionberry, produces large quantities of flavorful berries on strong laterals in midsummer. Tending to trail, Marion canes can stretch up to 20 feet in length, and must be trellised. Control its growth by pruning off the tips before they contact the soil, and by mowing around the patch regularly to cut back escaping laterals and tips.
While blackberry thorns are notoriously wicked, many growers believe thorny varieties bear the best fruit, some going so far as refusing to consider thornless varieties. Thorns or no thorns, and no matter the variety you choose, you can enjoy the sweet flavor of your favorite brambles for years to come.
Use fresh-picked bramble fruits in this Very Berry Pie.
Do not attempt to compost prunings. Bramble canes, and especially their thorns, break down slowly in home compost operations, if at all, and viruses also often survive small batch composting. Instead, bundle up the dead canes for trash removal, send them to municipal compost operations, or burn them for disposal.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is vice president of the Backyard Fruit Growers, a grassroots group of fruit enthusiasts. He still loves to grab a bucket and head for the wild bramble patches when the raspberries and wineberries are ripe, and still brings home only about half of what he picks.