2014-04-03 / From The Garden

Blackberries, an Old-Fashioned Favorite

By Cynthia Gibson

How long has it been since you’ve eaten homemade blackberry jam or blackberry pie? I’m not referring to the watery, almost tasteless berries that you get from the supermarket. Think back to those hot summer days when we found these plump treasures in fields or along roadsides. Who doesn’t remember grabbing at the canes (mindful of the thorns’ prickly surprise), picking your fill, and leaving the patch with a purple mouth?

There are more than forty species of blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) and they have grown wild for centuries. Native to the world, the bramble, or wild blackberry, was found in Asia, Africa, Europe, and all of North America. The seed became more popular as it traveled the trade routes. Eastern European countries, usually on the cutting edge of discovering a way to turn anything horticultural into an alcoholic libation, were the first to turn wild blackberries into a sweet wine and liqueur. It’s actually still a good choice today when making a Kir, a simple white wine poured over a base of sweet liqueur.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Today’s blackberry plants have come a long way from those we found along the road. They have been hybridized into tasty gigantic sizes that even grow on thornless canes. The process of creating a hybrid is complicated, but here is the short version. A blackberry was crossed with a raspberry; the result was a thornless red/wine-colored blackberry known as a loganberry. Further cross-hybridization gave us the marionberry (not to be confused with the former two-time mayor of D.C.) and the boysenberry.

All of these “new” berries were the result of excellent experimentation with a wild blackberry and a raspberry cross. Loganberries, the product of the original cross by James Harvey Logan, are found in our supermarkets during the summer. They are quite tart and do not have as much flavor as the newer blackberry offspring. Marionberries grow best in Oregon where they were created, but can also grow in our area. They are recognized worldwide and have the best taste of the crossed varieties. Boysenberries are tart to sour most of the time, but have a nice flavor. You will always have to add sugar to them.

The spectacular blackberry plants available for purchase today are the “Natchez,” “Ouachita,” “Black Satin,” and the very best “Triple Crown” varieties. Call your nurseries now, as they are ordering for spring.

The berries of Ouachita and Triple Crown can grow a little larger than a quarter. They are huge and juicy, certainly the best choices for jam.

One question that can affect your decision is whether to buy erect, semi-erect, or trailing plants. I purchased Ouachita, a sturdy variety that needs little support. Semierect selections will rely on metal stakes.

A long rectangular-shaped patch is ideal for your blackberry plants, as they should be placed three to four feet apart at a minimum. Trellises work well, as the canes can extend to 20 feet during one growing season.

Once the bushes are planted, mulching the bed is a must. Blackberries and raspberries like their fertilizer on the acidic side, and Holly-Tone fits the bill nicely. You can find this staple at any local garden center.

The varieties I have identified will mostly ripen toward the end of July and throughout August. You will know your berries are ready for eating or delicious desserts when they lose their shine and take on a matte appearance.

One blackberry plant can produce one to two quarts of berries. While probably too many to eat at one sitting, the overflow can be devoted to freezing, jams, or pies. However, you probably don’t want to share your fruit with the birds. Netting the bushes after pollination is essential. The best netting is woven. It is more expensive, but you can use it over and over again for years, unlike other options such as Bird-X which gets easily tangled and is not a friend to birds.

Fall is the time for pruning. Thornless varieties are pruned back to three feet after their first year of growth; the same canes will produce fruit in their second year. In the third year, remove new canes that start to sprout from the base or crown of the plant.

Blackberries are almost a “lost” taste. They are so special and belong in your yard, but can also flourish in portable five-gallon pots as long as they are stored in a shed or garage during the winter. There is nothing to stop you from enjoying this old-fashioned summer treat while reliving the memories of purple mouths and fingers.

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