Blackberries The Sweet and the Thorny

By Joyce White

My blackberry patch has a history, and it begins with raspberries. When I moved to the small town of Stoneham in the Western Maine foothills 23 years ago, I told my elderly neighbor, Arlene, that even though I had started a new raspberry patch, I missed picking fresh, ripe raspberries.

“Well, you should go up and pick mine,” she said. “I can’t get up there now with this arthritis.” So I was over the moon picking all those luscious ripe berries, with plenty for both of us. Then, when blackberry season rolled around, she told me to pick the blackberries, too, and we shared that delicious bounty.

Then came the time when Arlene needed to sell her farm and move near her daughter. It’s a good thing I never knew the name of the man she hired to mow her field. I wouldn’t have been able to be civil to anyone who would, as he did, carelessly murder perfectly healthy and very productive raspberry and blackberry plants – not only in the field but up close to the buildings.

Some of the blackberry plants did grow back, but the raspberries never did. Gradually blackberry plants spread and produced luscious berries again. The new owners decided to move the plot and renovate it, and they told me to dig up some of the new plants if I wanted. So four years ago I dug up six of those hardy old plants whose name nobody knows.

Now blackberry plants are taking over the blueberry plants that have been there for 22 years, no longer as hardy and productive as they once were, but I still hope that I can save the last two from blackberry aggression. Blackberry plants also are sending thorny shoots up in the herb garden and the lawn. I notice that even though they are right beside their cousin, the Rugosa rose, the rose is holding its own against blackberry invasion.

The wild parents of these upright, thorny, cultivated plants bearing, large, glossy, sweet (when vine-ripened) blackberries are unknown. “The vast Rubus fruticosus clan, including as it does blackberries, raspberries and all their bastard progeny, also comprises one of the most bewilderingly diverse plant families in the world,” comments Jack Staub in “75 Remarkable Fruits for Your Garden” (Gibbs Smith publishing, 2007). He notes that the native distribution of blackberry ranges from the Arctic to every continent except Antarctica and that Europe and Asia have over 2,000 named varieties and 66 species. In many places they are thornily invasive and have been used in European hedgerows as a barrier. Staub continues, “It seems that they will grow on any site of former human habitation, taking root apparently to the depths of hell, and extending their thorny yet winningly berry-laden canes skyward.”

Of the numerous blackberries in the Northeast, Maine herbalist Corinne Martin says the local wild variety is likely to be Rubus allegheniensis. In my childhood we would go as a family, joining neighbors and their kids, to a clearing where plants laden with luscious berries had sprung up after a logging operation. We would climb over logging debris to fill – and sometimes spill – buckets with ripe, juicy, wild blackberries. Of course we also ate a lot in the process. I have picked wild blackberries everywhere I’ve lived over these many years, and in each location the berries have been distinctly different. Those that I find here in Stoneham – and they are scratchily invasive – are small, compact, seedy and sweet.

As members of the Rosaceae family, blackberries have been known by many names, including bramble berry, and have been consumed in England since Neolithic times, Staub says. He relates folklore regarding blackberries (including its frequent association with the devil) and notes that passing under an arch of brambles rooted into the ground at both ends was thought to be able to treat rheumatism, boils, whooping cough and almost any other ailment.

On a more modern note, the USDA says that one cup of blackberries provides 50% of one’s daily value of vitamin C, 36% of vitamin K, 9% of folate and 8% of vitamin E. The anthocyanins in blackberries, says Staub, may reduce the risk of heart disease and inhibit colon cancer, and their fiber and some other components are good for heart health. According to Bushman et al. in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/jf049149a), the seeds are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids as well as protein, carotenoids and other nutrients. Apparently neither cooking nor freezing damages the health benefits.

Blackberry leaves and bark also have medicinal properties. Among those properties, according to Rameshwar Verma et al. (“Rubus fruticosus [blackberry] use as an herbal medicine,” Pharmacognosy Review, July-Dec. 2014), the leaves have been used traditionally for their antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, and an extract of the leaves showed a hypoglycemic effect on diabetic rats. They add that the leaves and roots are long-standing home remedies for treating anemia, diarrhea and dysentery and for regulating menses; that the fruit and juice are taken for anemia; and that an infusion applied externally has been used to treat skin conditions, while a decoction of the leaves can treat thrush and make a good general mouthwash.

Let blackberry fruits ripen fully for maximum health benefits. (Who would want to have them any other way?) Blackberries don’t ripen after picking, and the longer they stay on the vine, the sweeter and healthier they become.

Blackberries, ripe and juicy right off the vine: What an excellent way to enhance the pleasure in our diets and our health at the same time!

About the author: Joyce White lives in Stoneham, Maine, and is a frequent contributor to The MOF&G.

This article is for informational purposes only. For serious medical conditions, please consult your health care practitioner.

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