All About Rubus Berries

Keep low-hanging fruit within easy reach when you cultivate shrubs of the Rubus genus.

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by AdobeStock/san_ta

At least one major member of the Rubus genus – blackberry, raspberry, dewberry, and wineberry – lives in every U.S. state. We annually have a goal to pick, can, and freeze 10 gallons of these berries borne by shrubs in the rose family. Our harvest goes into pies, cobblers, jams, pancakes, muffins, smoothies, and other delights we put up for enjoying the rest of the year. But Rubus members do more than supply us with sweet treats. The shrubs also form dense thickets that provide nesting, food, and escape cover for wildlife.

You can create wild berry thickets on your property fairly easily. Trevor Saville, who operates a farm and forestry consulting business in Eagle Rock, Virginia, explains how: “Blackberry and other Rubus family members are often in the seed bank,” he says. “All it takes to activate those seeds is some kind of disturbance. To create this habitat, landowners can make small clear-cuts or gap cuts with a chainsaw, conduct a controlled burn, or bush-hog a section in a field. Rubus species are natural colonizers if they’re present in the seed bank, and songbirds distribute their seeds as well. In short, create some ‘new ground,’ and before long, you’ll have berry patches.”

On our 38 acres, we arranged for several small clear-cut areas a decade or so ago. Since then, we’ve maintained continuous productivity in the berry patches that appeared by removing the tree saplings that periodically pop up.

Songbirds, game birds, and mammals all use berry thickets for food and cover. “What birds and other creatures need are places to breed, feed, and hide,” Saville says. “Berry thickets are ideal for this. Wild creatures can nest in berry thickets, feed on the insects and fruits there, and flee there to escape predators.”

White-eyed vireos, yellow-breasted chats, brown thrashers, gray catbirds, towhees, and numerous species of sparrows are just a few songbirds that will be drawn to the Rubus oases on your land. We’ve observed wild turkey nests in blackberry and wineberry copses, and have watched mother hens bring their poults to feed on berries. Our native bees and butterflies – important pollinators – depend on berry blooms for nourishment.

Blackberry

The native blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) may be the most important of our foursome, because it thrives in the entire eastern two-thirds of the United States. A close western relative, the Pacific blackberry (Rubus ursinus) ensures the West can enjoy this fruit as well, and the sawtooth blackberry (Rubus argutus) exists from Texas to Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard.

Blackberries constitute the bulk of our summer fruit gathering. They flaunt the biggest berries (about 1/2 inch), the tartest fruit, and the sharpest thorns. Even the 3 to 5 leaflets have little pointed teeth on their margins. As with other Rubus fruit, blackberries are rich in vitamins C and K. In Southwest Virginia where we live, the white blooms appear in May, and the fruits gradually progress from green to pink, then to red, and finally to an ebony black. For us, July is blackberry harvest time all month long. Depending on where you live, you may gather as early as June or as late as early September.

black raspberry bush

Black Raspberry

Black raspberries are by far our favorite Rubus. A banner year might see us gathering 2 gallons of Rubus occidentalis, while an average year might yield only 2 or 3 quarts. But oh my, how those quarts are cherished! A raspberry pie is Bruce’s hands-down favorite dessert at any time of the year. These berries have the right mix of sweet and tart, making them ideal for cobblers, muffins, and jam.

As with the other Rubus species profiled here, raspberry canes produce fruit their second year. The canes stand out because they’re a sky-blue color. The compound leaves feature 3 to 5 leaflets similar to, though smaller and not as jagged as, those of blackberry shrubs. The leaves are an appealing silver-green on the underside.

In our area, raspberries begin to ripen in mid-to-late June, and we generally finish picking them 2 to 3 weeks later. Fruits are bluish-black and detach easily. Raspberry cane thorns are much smaller than the blackberry’s – another reason why they’re our favorite. Also known as “black cap” or “Scotch cap raspberries,” they thrive from Maine to Georgia, and westward to Missouri and the Dakotas.

dewberry vines

Dewberry

Basically a creeping version of the blackberry, the drupes of the dewberry (Rubus flagellaris, also known as the “northern dewberry”) are a dusky black compared with the deep black of its close relative, the blackberry. Dewberries and blackberries are similar in size, but the former is slightly sweeter. The leaves and stems are also comparable, but the dewberry’s are less prickly.

Besides the northern dewberry, there’s a close relative, the southern, or “bristly,” dewberry. One or more dewberry species should be available if you live in the eastern two-thirds of the United States. Where we live in Virginia, dewberries ripen throughout much of July. Unfortunately, they’re never abundant, because they’re outcompeted by blackberries in our area. We rarely gather more than a cup at a time, so we usually just freeze them in the same containers as the blackberries.

many red ripe wineberries

Wineberry

Although the wineberry is officially an invasive species, we prefer to label it a beneficial non-native because of the habitat and food it provides wildlife, and for the delicious sweets it affords humans. Wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius), also known as “wine raspberries,” mostly exist east of the Mississippi but have been expanding their range since their introduction from Asia in the 1890s.

Wineberries look different than our other subjects. The berries metamorphose from orange to bright red when ripe, and the stems have a reddish color because of the hairs growing densely along the branches. The leaves are a paler green than other members of our quartet and have whitish undersides. The thorns are fairly small and not as hard on our fingers as blackberry thorns. The shrubs have leaflets appearing in clusters of three, with serrated edges. Blooms are greenish with white petals. In our area, wineberries ripen a little later than raspberries and a little earlier than blackberries and dewberries.

The summer berry season is the focal point of our wild food gathering for the year. Rubus shrubs can supply all kinds of desserts for you and yours. Here are three of our favorite recipes. Note that you can use any of the berries described above in these recipes, either singly or in combination with each other.

  • Updated on Apr 21, 2022
  • Originally Published on Apr 14, 2022
Tagged with: black raspberry, blackberry, dewberry, rubus berries, wineberry