Growing Bramble Fruit

Bramble berries are a favorite simple-to-grow summertime snack.

| July/August 2017

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.

Raising Cane

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.

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