Blackberry Bliss

by Roger Klinger

Ripe blackberries. Sweet, glistening blackish-purple jewels, dripping nectar in the summer heat; luscious fruits, exploding into our mouths, awakening our taste buds with juicy delight that is the essence of summertime in the mountains. Yes, summer is in full swing, with the heat of the sun beaming down on the good earth and the whole world, and the mountains are lush and overflowing with the bounty of nature’s gardens.

Numerous thundershowers beginning in July ended what was shaping up to be a tenacious new drought cycle. The lands were bone dry in June, but now all is well as the waters of life have returned.

An integral part of summers for my whole life has been the arrival of blackberries in the fields and meadows. As a child, I would pick baskets of ripe luscious berries for days and bring them home to my father and grandmother, who both adored these fruits of the wild. We would have blackberry pancakes, blackberries on our cereal and cobblers with ice cream, and then my grandmother would always get to work on blackberry jam for the rest of the year, as she knew it was my father’s favorite.

Blackberries, a species in the Rubus genus, are common, thorny, vining shrubs abundant in the mountains and present throughout much of North America. Rubus means “red hair.” The genus also includes raspberries, and western North Carolina has several native species. Blackberries are woody shrubs with canes that grow upward but often bend to the ground, sometimes re-rooting. The canes grow the first year and fruit during the second year, and then they die. The famous fruits are actually aggregates, ¾” long and 1/3” across, the size varying with moisture levels. Berries are at first white or green, eventually turning red and then black.

When we lived in the Pacific Northwest near Mt. Ranier, our land had whole hillsides covered in the most amazing blackberries we had ever seen. They looked like they were on steroids — the canes could grow 30 feet in a year and be an inch thick with gargantuan thorns that would rip blue jeans! We said we loved blackberries, but the locals said we wouldn’t within a year, because these were Himalayan blackberries, a formidable, invasive introduction plant.

The natives were right; we loved the berries but the plants grew like kudzu with huge barbaric thorns. Still, when summer came, people in the mountains were everywhere with their buckets strapped to their belts enjoying these delicious free gifts from the natural world. When we moved back to the Blue Ridge, we were glad to return to our soul home and also pleased that the blackberries were “normal!”

Blackberry leaves were listed in the official U.S. pharmacopoeia for a long time, for the treatment of digestive problems, particularly diarrhea. Their dried leaves make an excellent tea. The Cherokee and many other tribes in North America found that the root made an effective topical wash to relieve the discomfort of hemorrhoids. Blackberries were found in the stomach content of the Haraldskaer Woman, an Iron Age bog body found in Denmark in 1835 but killed around 500 BC. Her last meal was millet and blackberries – not a bad last supper! The ancient Greeks considered the species good for ailments of the mouth and throat and for treating gout.

Blackberries are loaded with nutritional value as they have high concentrations of antioxidants and vitamins. Blackberries are also a good source of vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and calcium. The seeds have Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.

Blackberries are a tender fruit once picked, and will often mold within a couple of days of picking if not refrigerated. Do not wash them until time of use because that, too, promotes mold. Picked unripe berries will not ripen.

In the United Kingdom, there is a legend that blackberries should not be picked after Old Michaelmas Day, which falls on October 11, because the devil makes them unfit to eat by stepping, spitting or fouling on them. There is some merit in this legend, as wetter and cooler weather often allows the fruit to become infected by various molds such as Botryotinia, which give the fruit an unpleasant look and may be toxic.

Insects and wildlife including honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, Mason bees, flies, wasps and small to medium-sized butterflies also love blackberries. Mammals and birds including wild turkey, bobwhite, ring-necked pheasant and various mammals like bears, raccoons, foxes and rabbits are big fans as well.

Blackberries are a natural treasure in our mountains. Blackberries are truly part of summer’s bliss; and the gift we all share in these mountains is that none of us have to travel too far to find these lovely, delightful berries that grow everywhere and are free for the picking.

We all seem to appreciate these summer delicacies; as we eat a fresh, juicy ripe blackberry and let its intense flavor slowly descend into our delighted bodies, may we each give thanks for the blessings of summer and all its living treasures and earthly delights.

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