This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is one of the best parts of summer… Rubus fruticosus, the Wild Blackberry. There are few native plants that can bring back so many memories for so many people with just a taste. Like Dewberry a few weeks ago, blackberries are not just a wild edible, they’re a “wild enjoyable.” Unlike some plants which, while they will keep you alive, are pretty vile, blackberries are prime fare. Whether wild or domestically grown blackberries taste better is up for debate, but there’s no question that they’re one of the most sought-after fruits around. The prices on the ones for sale at the supermarket definitely reflect that, but personally, we’d rather pick our own. They make you bleed for it, but that just makes them that much more rewarding.
Blackberries are a woody perennial shrub with a biennial fruiting habit. The rootstock is perennial, but each stem (called a cane) lives for two years. Year one is the primocane year. Primocanes are when the shoot pops up out of the ground and grows a tall, rangy, thorny cane with a tuft of leaves at the tip. Year two is when those primocanes turn into floricanes. They don’t grow any bigger, instead, they branch out with many more leaves, bloom, and set fruit. After the fruiting year, the cane dies and the process repeats. Blackberry canes range from 3’-9’ long depending on species, and have a long, arching growth habit. They’re usually less than half an inch in diameter and are covered from base to tip with hooked, clawlike thorns. Blackberries have compound leaves made up of five oval, finely toothed leaves with distinct ridges. The leaves have thorns, as well. The flowers are white, five-petaled, and have a tiny green center. They look a lot like tiny apple blossoms, actually. Both species are members of the rose family, so that’s no coincidence. The fruit, of course, is recognizable by almost everyone. They’re a compound fruit that turns from bright green to red to purple to a deep black when ripe. Blackberries have no deadly mimics, so if you see something that looks like a blackberry, it is one. Unless it’s a dewberry, but those are edible too. Blackberries are technically not berries at all – they’re considered an aggregate, made up of dozens of tiny drupelets, each with a seed inside. Blackberries are a valuable wild edible to know, because regardless of where you are, you can probably find them. They are native to the Americas, Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, and have been naturalized in Australia and New Zealand. They’re one of the most valuable wilderness survival food sources above the Arctic Circle – just watch for grizzlies when you’re foraging, because they love blackberries more than you do, and they’re willing to prove it. There are dozens of species in the genus, all with slightly different characteristics. However, they all look similar, and are all delicious. Blackberries can be found in almost any disturbed area. In fact, they love a mess. The rougher the area, it seems like the more they like it. They’re usually one of the first plants to take over after an area has been cleared, and will form dense monocultures until tree saplings get tall enough to shade them out. They need full sun, and as such, you won’t find them in the deep woods. Look for forest clearings, deadfalls, abandoned home sites, roadsides, powerlines, abandoned construction sites, woods edges, and fencelines.
Blackberries are, of course, most notable as a wild edible. The fruits are extremely high in vitamin C, vitamin K, and a whole host of trace minerals. They are also a superfood – their levels of antioxidants and cancer-fighting bioflavonoids rival the famed Brazilian acai berry. My favorite way to eat them is straight off the plant, or with some homemade vanilla ice cream. But of course they’re also great in cobblers, pies, jams, jellies, and ice cream, and if you’re creative in the kitchen, their uses are limited only by your imagination. They’re great in salads, and one of the best things I’ve ever done with them is a glaze to drizzle over grilled venison backstrap… mmmm…. But while the berries are obviously the most desirable, in reality, the whole plant is edible. Like we talked about last week with Bull Thistle, thorny, unfriendly plants often taste the mildest because they don’t need to have a bitter taste mechanism to discourage browsing herbivores. The stems, especially as primocanes, can be peeled and cooked much like asparagus. The flowers are edible, and so are the roots.
Blackberry is also a useful medicinal plant. It has astringent, diuretic, and tonic properties. The most common medicinal uses of blackberry are the leaves in a tea and the roots in a decoction. The leaves are best known for treating digestive ailments, such as diarrhea, dysentery, heartburn, and upset stomach. As a diuretic, they are also useful for flushing retained water and promoting kidney health. The root decoction has the most powerful astringent properties, and is good for treating sore gums, mouth sores, and sore throats. And finally, a poultice made from the leaves is good for treating hemorrhoids. Just make sure to remove the thorns firsts.
And as for those thorns… when blackberry canes die, they generally stay standing for several years, since blackberries grow in thickets and the canes support each other. After several years of growth, this can make for a completely impenetrable thorny wall of brush. As a search & rescue technician, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to hack through a blackberry thicket to complete a search area. We call them “wait-a-minute” briars, since every few minutes you’re yelling out “Wait a minute! I’m stuck!” to your teammates. The thorns are definitely sharp enough to rip you open, and due to their hook shape, they catch on everything. Lightweight, quick-drying synthetic fabrics don’t fare well at all. If you plan on picking blackberries or traveling through them, go for the heaviest fabric you can find. Cotton canvas or a blend like a heavy BDU fabric works pretty well. It’s one of the few times we’ll tell you to wear cotton in the woods. However, you can use these canes to your advantage. Native tribes all across America, including the Cherokee, made brush walls out of dead blackberry canes to encircle their villages to keep out intruders and unwanted animals. In times of war, the brush walls were used to make funnels which would send the enemy to choke points covered by waiting braves. If you find yourself in a long-term survival situation, you can do the same thing. Pile them high and thick, and any animal or human hoping to sneak into your camp is going to get seriously slowed down and make a lot of racket trying to make it through the thorns. They won’t stop a threat by themselves, but they will serve as a first line of defense and an early warning system to allow you to respond on your own terms.
Although they grow all over the world, blackberries are about as all-American as it gets. They’re a part of our culture, especially in the South. I have many fond memories of picking blackberries with friends and family, and then enjoying a cobbler fresh out of the oven with vanilla ice cream that evening. They’re one of the most prized wild edibles in the Eastern Woodlands, are a valuable medicinal plant, and you can even use them to keep your camp safe. There’s certainly a lot to love about them, thorns and all.
What’s your favorite way to use blackberries? We’re always looking for new ways to enjoy them. Tell us in the comments!