There in the thickets, along fencerows and places only deer and black flies are unafraid to tread, they maliciously darn any exposed skin when attempting to pick their drupelets of sweet goodness. Just the juice alone can stain your fingers and shirt for weeks while the seeds can require the most precise of dental flossing. And yet, for many a strong-willed forager, the July ripened “rubus” genus families of blackberries, blackcaps or black raspberries are well worth the challenges in harvesting.
This mystical floricane seems to pop up whenever and wherever conditions are right especially as a hedgerow or forest receives rays of sunshine after a cutting. With what I’ve seen at our farm, I have to believe the bird’s random deposit to the seed-bank will last for years. The cool thing is its proliferation happens for free. As any farmer knows though, ya gotta know where to find them.
At one time I had this grand plan to use my grazing chart map to record where all the plants resided. While good intentioned, this took all the fun out of the hunt so I scrapped it but made a recording that berries would be ripening after July 15th. This documentation is critical as a way to know when you’re going to get the first warm pie slathered with vanilla ice-cream.
Even though the wild berries are small and take some effort to glean enough for a pie or jam, the nutritional merits are one that make doctors smile. The blackberry family is high in gallic acid, rutin and ellagic acid, a known chemo-preventative, with anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.
With their dark blue pigment, blackberries have one of the highest antioxidant levels and are credited with decreasing the rate at which the memory deteriorates (like mine). Blackberries are also rich in Vitamin C and fiber, while being low in calories, carbohydrates and have no fat which makes them popular in all sorts of diets. Those pesky seeds even contain some oil which is rich in omega-3 and linoleic acid.
There are other things one can do with brambles, such as boiling bramble leaves with lye to make a black hair dye (for those who don’t want to be blonde) or using bramble leaf tea as an alleged cure for various ailments from hernias to dysentery. The plant’s trailing running shoots can be collected and scraped while the spikes are still soft, which reveals a moist, soft center that can be eaten raw on its own or in salads. Even old bramble shoots have traditionally been used to make basketry, including skeps (wicker baskets used as beehives).
Every time I run into their prickly facade while tying off my poly-wire to the fence, it seems to conjure up a desire to go brambling, (a term used by some for the picking of wild blackberries not to be confused with the sissy picking of thornless varieties). I fondly remember journeys into the woodland abyss with my grandparents as a child which always seemed to be more fun than work.
I tried to recreate this magic with my kids but all I got was complaining about the heat, scratches, flies and too much work with too little reward. As I grew older, time constraints and the “gotta be somewhere” syndrome caught up with me and I have to admit not having the patience to pick either, against the site of a hammock or pool. Most of the available pollen and fruit just goes to feed the insects and wildlife which is OK too.
This year I am rededicating myself to the harvest of this nearly tax-free food as the wet, hot and humid weather is producing a bumper crop of mosquitoes and wonderful plump blackberries. Having just turned 50, I’m gonna need the bramble’s fiber and antioxidants in my diet while exercising in the thicket building cardiac health. This activity fits the bill.
Health benefits aside, I’m really looking forward to the sweet taste as it compliments some of my favorite foods like ice-cream, toast, yogurt, salads, wine and a new concoction I just enjoyed made with gin, aptly named “the Bramble”.
In researching the sacred fruit, it’s apparent more people are interested in the wireless handheld device than the experience of picking and enjoying this notable black honey of summer. Shame is while those smartphones can be construed as sweet—–they basically taste like plastic…
Originally published in Lee Publication’s Country Folks weekly newspaper 8/3/2013