Seeds, thorns, thickets, bugs and all the people and bears who got to the crop first give blackberry lovers a lot to complain about. But for some of us, summer just isn’t summer if we haven’t picked enough of the juicy, too-tender fruits to make a pie or a couple of pints of jam. With their somewhat classier relatives, the red and black raspberries, blackberries are usually called “brambles,” and often are regarded as weeds and a nuisance. The family, with native varieties from the Arctic to the tropics, is on every continent but Australia and Antarctica.
Brambleberries are clusters of tiny fruits called drupelets. Each drupelet is a separate fruit with skin, flesh and seed like tiny peaches. Drupelets are attached to the receptacle, or stalk. Raspberries lift off the receptacle when picked. Blackberry drupelets remain attached to the stalk so they have more dietary fiber.
As members of the rose family and relatives of strawberries, wild brambleberries are a mid- to late-summer crop in this region, and ripening depends on elevation and sun exposure. More times than I can recall I have come home from an August hike with hands stained and sticky from blackberry juice and arms itchy and red from those pesky thorns.
Fortunately for serious berry cherishers, agronomists have discovered thornless mutants that take some of the worry out of being close. But note that most of these varieties are only partial mutants, and genes for thorns are still carried in root tissues. So what? you may ask. Well, you see, if these spineless mutants are allowed to produce root suckers or are propagated by root cuttings, they turn back into thorny shrubs — sort of a were-weed that develops fur and fangs when you least expect it.
Some of the most important commercially grown brambles are actually blackberry/red raspberry hybrids and include boysenberry, loganberry, Nessberry, Olallieberry, Phenomenal berry, Tayberry and youngberry. There also are purple raspberries, a hybrid of the red and black raspberries, which are attractive but lack in taste.
Fruiting begins in the second year and may continue for more than 10 years with good care. Fall-fruiting types will produce two crops a year, and in all types fruit develops quickly — 30 to 50 days for most raspberries and 40 to 70 days for blackberries.
Brambles grow well in most well-drained locations and in any soil type, from sandy to clay loams with a pH of 5-7, acidic soil. On the downside, brambles require more space than some home gardeners can afford, with hedgerows typically 3 feet wide and spaced 8 or more feet apart (though one row along the edge of a garden area can be a good solution). Avoid plots used to grow peppers, tomatoes, eggplants or potatoes in the last five years because these plants harbor a fungus that can kill raspberry roots.
Unlike many fruit crops, brambles are propagated easily. Most propagate too well and can become invasive weeds. Mowing around the perimeter or “mulching” with old carpet is a good way to suppress unwanted growth. The easiest propagation methods for home gardeners are:
* Root cuttings. Pencil-size roots are cut into 5-inch pieces and planted a couple of inches deep and a foot or two apart in rows. Root cuttings are dug in mid-winter and planted in early spring.
* Tip layering. This is for black raspberries, hybrids, trailing types and thornless mutants. Shoot tips are buried in late summer. The following spring, layered plants can be dug and transplanted.
* Leafy stem cuttings. Semi-hardwood cuttings can be rooted under mist in mid-summer.
Most erect-growing brambleberries are grown in hedgerows. Hand-harvested plantings are usually pruned to a 3-foot-wide dimension to keep fruit in reach. Trailing types must be grown on a trellis.
So if the bears and the mutant ninja neighbors have beaten you to the berries once too often, consider turning part of your yard into a bramble thicket. Local plant nurseries can give you advice about the best variety for your location, or you can dig some root cuttings in your favorite patch.