Wild blackberries are one of the sweetest tastes of summer. Best eaten fresh, many generations of children and adults have enjoyed picking and eating fresh, wild blackberries.
In recent decades this once common pursuit saw a decline in popularity. Happily, today, with a renewed interest in eating local, organic and sustainable food, wild blackberries are enjoying a resurgence.
If you want to pick and enjoy your own wild blackberries but aren’t sure where to start, this article is for you. As well as explaining what wild blackberries are and where to find them, we will also provide you with harvest and storage tips, enabling you to fully enjoy these sweet summer fruits.
Wild blackberries are one of the sweetest tastes of summer.
What are Wild Blackberries?
Wild blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis) are easy to identify. When compared to other wild growing fruit the blackberry is unmistakable. This means that you are unlikely to accidentally poison yourself.
Blackberry fruit develops on brambles. The bramble is an important part of many local ecosystems, providing food and shelter for numerous mammals and birds. Despite this many gardeners dislike brambles, considering them invasive weeds.
There are over 2000 different varieties of blackberry recorded in the Northern hemisphere. The majority of these grow wild. Generally in the United States there are 4 common, native types of wild blackberries. These are:
- Western Thimbleberry (R. Parviflorus)
- Pacific Blackberry (R. Ursinus)
- Himalayan Blackberry (R. Discolor)
- Cutleaf Blackberry (R. Laciniatus)
Of these 4 native species the Himalayan grows everywhere except California, here the Pacific blackberry is a common sight. The Cutleaf can be found in most areas with an elevation of up to 6,200 ft. The Western Thimbleberry is commonly found growing in moist soil close to streams and ditches.
Blackberry patches are often found on the edge of fields or in hedgerows.
Unlike the Western Thimbleberry, the Pacific, Himalayan and Cutleaf cultivars all have a vining growth habit. Further separating it in appearance from the other native species, the Western Thimbleberry also lacks the prickly stems that wild blackberries typically have.
Usually growing in thorny, bramble patches, the foliage of wild blackberries is typically oval shaped with serrated edges. The leaves also display pinnate venation, meaning that there is a visible central vein and pattern. The underside of the leaf is usually a lighter shade of green than the topside. Both the Himalaya and Cutleaf cultivars have five-angled stems. The Himalaya has five leaflets which are oval and serrated. In contrast the Cutleaf produces deeply lobed leaflets in sets of five.
Blackberry leaves are typically serrated and have a clearly visible central vein.
Blackberry bushes develop as canes with underground roots. The stems are ridged and have tough little thorns. The thorns are similar in color to the stems. Despite their rigidity, the weight of the fruit on the canes or stems can cause the plants to flop over to the ground.
All 4 native species are considered invasive. The Himalayan blackberry plant is considered the most troublesome of the 4.
During the spring or summer months native species of wild blackberries typically produce white or pink flowers. Of the 4 the Western Thimbleberry and Pacific cultivars typically flower in March and early April. The Himalayan and Cutleaf cultivars flower a little later in the year, typically during May or early June.
Regardless of the variety, as the flowers fade the plants produce fleshy one seeded fruit. This forms in shades of green or red before turning black, deep blue or dark purple, darkening further as it ripens.
What do Wild Blackberries look like?
Blackberry fruit starts to form as soon as the flowers have been pollinated.
Once flowers are pollinated, fruit starts to form.
As the berries ripen they mature from green balls to red, increasing in size and darkening to black or purple fruit. The blackberry is a solid fruit, unlike the cup shaped hollow raspberry.
Typically wild blackberries ripen from May to September. In cooler climates they ripen from July onwards.
At a glance, the dewberry and blackberry can look similar. However, there are some key differences. The blackberry is typically larger and juicier. It also tends to ripen more quickly. Dewberries tend to grow close to the ground and do not fruit as abundantly as blackberry plants. Finally, the fruit of the dewberry typically ripens a week or two before blackberry fruit.
Can I Grow Wild Blackberries at Home?
Until recently blackberry plants were rarely cultivated commercially because they do not produce fruit in the first year and, unless heavily protected, the cane can die away during the winter months. Today, new cultivars of wild blackberries suitable for the home garden are available, allowing almost anyone to grow and pick these delicious fruiting canes. Most blackberry cultivars are hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 10.
While you can grow your own plants from cuttings, purchased, cultivated stock is free from bacteria and fungal disease that may be present on wild plants.
Blackberry plants are known for their invasive growth habit. Planting in pots or planters, to prevent the roots from spreading, and regularly pruning can significantly contain their spread. This, coupled with their numerous health benefits, the blackberry is rich in antioxidants, has seen more people looking to add these fruiting plants to their gardens.
The blackberry plant grows in a range of conditions, but can become invasive.
How and Where to Plant
Blackberry plants are best planted in a full sun position and in well draining soil.
The soil pH should range from 6.0 to 6.5. A soil test kit will tell you the pH level of your soil, allowing you to work in any necessary amendments before planting. If you are planting in a container, ensure that it is clean and there are adequate drainage holes in the bottom. Pots should be at least 18 inches wide and filled with fresh potting soil.
As we have already noted many plant nurseries and garden stores sell blackberry plants. However, you can also cultivate your blackberry bush by taking cuttings from a wild plant.
To grow wild blackberries take a 4 to 10 inch long stem cutting at a 45 degree angle from a healthy plant. The cutting should be taken with sterilized pruning shears or garden scissors. Place the cutting in water immediately and keep it wet until you are ready to plant.
Fill a small pot with a moist potting medium. A combination of sterilized loam, sterilized horticultural sand and sphagnum moss is ideal. When you are ready to plant, shake away any excess water and dip the cut end of the stem in rooting hormone and plant.
Cover the planted cutting with an opaque plastic bag or place in a propagator. Propagators with humidity vents, such as the Tabor Tools Propagator, make controlling the temperature and humidity levels around the plants an easy task.
Place the cutting in a sunny position. Ideally the plant should receive 6 to 8 hours of light a day. If you are unable to find a position with enough natural light, a grow light can also be used. The temperature around the cutting should average between 60 and 70 ℉.
Keep the potting medium moist for 3 weeks, until roots form. To test for roots, gently pull the cutting from the soil. If you feel resistance from the cutting, it is a sign that rots are developing. If no roots are present return the cutting to the propagator for another week.
Once roots are present add compost to the top 6 inches of potting medium. You may also want to remove the cutting to loosen the roots before replanting. Mulch the soil and water well. Continue to keep soil moist until you are ready to plant out.
Harden off your cutting before transplanting it into its final location.
Transplanting a Blackberry plant
Blackberry plants are best planted from late fall to early spring. During this period the plants should be dormant with little to no visible sign of fresh growth.
With a good shovel, dig a hole big enough to comfortably hold the root system. When placed in the hole the roots should be no more than 2 to 3 inches below soil level. Position the plant in the center of the hole and backfill, being careful not to sink the plant. Water well.
If you are transplanting an established plant, or planting a developed bare root specimen, use garden scissors to cut all the visible canes down to a healthy bud. This encourages the plants to produce lots of healthy shoots the following spring.
After planting water regularly. During dry spells apply around one inch of water every week.
If you want to learn more about planting and caring for a blackberry bush, check out our guide.
How to Pick Wild Blackberries
Once you know what you are looking for, wild blackberries are easy to find. During the summer months they make up living fences and hedges, flourish alongside lanes and roadways and fill overgrown fields and meadows. The plants are a particularly common sight on the edge of wooded areas, farmlands and fields.
When you go blackberrying make sure that you are wearing long sleeves, long trousers and closed shoes. These are not only thorny plants but they often grow alongside other potentially harmful plants such as poison ivy. Additionally insects such as mosquitoes, wasps and ticks as well as snakes may also be close by. Gloves can also be worn to protect your hands. But be warned they may get caught and rip on the thorns.
As you approach the blackberry patch, make a lot of noise. Snakes, creatures and even bears may be close by. A noisy approach warns them of your presence, helping to keep both you and them safe.
In addition to your protective clothing you will also need a large container or containers such as a basket or plastic bowl. I find that a clean, old ice cream tub is ideal for holding my blackberry harvest. Make sure that there is lots of room in your container, you don’t want to squash the berries.
Place harvested fruit in a large bowl, be careful not to crush the fruit.
When harvesting, only pick large, healthy looking berries. Ripe fruit is easily removed from the stem. If you have to pull the fruit it probably isn’t ripe. Avoid picking any fruits that are green or red in color, these are unripe. Unlike other fruits, blackberries won’t ripen after you pick them. The best blackberries are large and plump with a deep rich color.
The best time to pick the fruit is in the early morning before temperatures rise. At this time of day the fruit is firm and less likely to crush.
Finally, remember that blackberry plants ripen in waves. This means that you can harvest the same patch numerous times.
Post Harvest Care and Storage
Wild blackberries can be eaten fresh on cereal, in salads used in pies and cobblers, james or smoothies.
While some people like to use their berries fresh, you may find you have too many and need to store some of the excess fruit. Berries are best stored in a shady cool space. Placing excess fruit in a cooler or fridge as soon as possible helps to keep it fresh for about a week. You can also store the fruit in shallow airtight containers, such as Rubbermaid Food Storage Containers. Storing in shallow containers ensures that the fruit isn’t crushed under its own weight.
Remember to wash them before use. Rinsing in cool water is fine. Some people like to soak the fruit in a saltwater bath to be sure that any hiding worms or insects are dislodged.
If you decide to wash the fruit as soon as you get home they will need to be frozen. Placing washed fruit in a chiller encourages a fuzzy mildew to form. The fruit freezes well, giving you a source of fruit for pies and cobblers throughout the winter months. To freeze, wash and dry in single layers. Store in thin layers and freeze once dry. You can also stew freshly picked fruit with a little sugar. Once stewed the fruit can be pureed and frozen.
The blackberry is one of the sweetest summer fruits.
A reliable summer fruit, many people can pick blackberries well into the fall. Late season wild blackberries can be particularly flavorsome. However, an English tradition states that you shouldn’t pick the fruit of the blackberry plant after Michaelmas Day. This is because it is believed that on Michaelmas day the devil was kicked out of heaven and landed on a blackberry bush. He was so incensed by his prickly landing that he urinated on the plant causing the fruit to spoil. Interestingly the legend has a grain of truth to it. Michaelmas is usually celebrated in late September. Around this date the weather tends to turn cooler and damper, causing the fruit to spoil.
One of the best tastes of summer, harvesting wild blackberries is not only a great day out but a fantastic way to source a great tasting, healthy treat.