Foraging for Blackberries

Early American Life Magazine
August 2006
Text and Images by "Wildman" Steve Brill

Discover

Blackberries helped get the Pilgrims through their first summer. Today the same fruit grows wild across America, free for the foraging. Here’s all you need to know to find and enjoy this year’s crop.

Colonists called bramble bushes “lawyers” in Shakespeare’s day because their stiff, sharp thorns grab hold of you and don’t let go until they’ve drawn blood. But that didn’t stop colonists from plucking all the fruit they could from the plant that was native both to the Old World and New. The gatherings were so good that even today we try to overlook the thorns and give the plant the name not of the cane but the fruit, blackberries.

In the earliest years of our country, the best part of blackberries was that they grew wild—at least the colonists didn’t have to plant them. Months before the Pilgrims’ first crops came in, for instance, they likely found ripe blackberries in the woods. Only in recent years have scientists discovered that many of those wild berries had been managed or cultivated by America’s native population. Even without native care, the plants thrived on their own throughout New England and much of the rest of the country.

In her 1848 diary, Ruth Douglass, a new resident of Isle Royale in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, described finding wild berries on a small island. “… strolled about the Island for some time at length we found berries of different varieties, Whortleberries, mulberries, wild pears, & cherries and a few red Raspberries …”

Today blackberries are just one of many overlooked wild foods that permeate America’s urban, suburban, and rural landscapes. These renewable resources range from the so-called “weeds” that people either remove from lawns or buy at premium prices at greenmarkets or health food stores to the abundant, delicious, healthful wild fruits and berries that thrive in thickets everywhere from Central Park to California.

Wild blackberries are among the best of these fruits on many grounds. They’re very common, widespread, abundant, prolific, easy to recognize, tasty, and nutritious. Examining these species in all their aspects will help us bring them into our lives, foster a greater love for the ecosystems that produce them, and appreciate their history in nature and in human affairs.

Wild Blackberries

The fruit of the blackberry bush, which ripens from mid-summer to early fall, goes from green to red to black. Note on the upper left that there is no receptacle protruding from the stem after the fruit has been removed (unlike raspberries).

KNOWING THE BRAMBLES

The place to begin is identification, an essential element of foraging. Fortunately, the blackberry is easy to recognize, and other similar-looking berries are all edible. The blackberry is a member of the brambles, in the genus Rubus, Latin for bramble, briar, prickly shrub, fruit of bramble, or blackberry. Brambles are usually woody plants with thorny, arching stems called canes. They can reach 10 feet tall (although some species trail the ground), and the tip of the stem sends roots into the soil if it touches the ground.

Most brambles and all blackberry species have fan-like palmate-compound leaves—each leaf is divided into segments emerging from one point, like the fingers emanating from your palm. Each of the three to seven oval, pointed, leaflets (segments) is finely toothed (serrated).

Blackberries have small, radially symmetrical, five-petaled, short-stemmed flowers, loosely but evenly clustered along stalks called racemes. Blooming in the spring and early summer, they give way to the familiar black fruit in the summer. The elliptical berry, one-half to one-and-a-half inches long, is an aggregate fruit. All of the facets, each with its own seed, comes from a single flower.

American colonists were familiar with blackberries from Europe, and they could refer to the excellent description in Gerard’s Herball, published in 1636: “The common bramble bringeth forth slender branches, long, tough, easily bowed, ramping among hedges and whatsoever stands neere unto it; armed with hard and sharpe prickles, whereon doe grow leaves consisting of many set upon a rough middle ribbe, greene on the upper side, and underneath somewhat white: on the tops of stalkes stand certaine floures, in shape like those of Brier Rose, but lesser, of colour white, and sometimes whasht over with a little purple: the fruit or berry is like that of the Mulberry, first red, blacke when it is ripe, in taste betweene sweet and soure, very soft, and full of grains: the root creepeth, and sendeth forth here and there young springs.”

Gerald also observed, “The ripe fruit is sweet, and it containeth in it much juyce of a temperate heate, therefore it is not unpleasant to be eaten.” Then, as now, it grew everywhere. “The Bramble groweth for the most part in every hedge and bush,” he wrote. But Gerard’s medical advice might not pass modern scrutiny. “They heale the eies that hang out,” he noted.

Curly Dock in Bloom

In the spring, sweet-smelling, white, five-petaled, radially symmetrical flowers about as wide as a quarter drape the bushes.

BERRY AMONG PEERS

Some of the most common blackberry species include the common blackberry (naturally), the cut-leaf blackberry, the dewberry, and the cloudberry. Raspberries and mulberries resemble blackberries but have their differences.

The common blackberry (R. allegheniensis) grows two to eight feet tall with very thorny erect or arching purplish canes. The leaflets are three to seven inches long and pale green underneath. The white flowers are one inch or less across. They grow in long clusters of six to fifteen. The berries, under one-inch long with the same configuration, ripen in August. The species grows throughout the Northeast.

The cut-leaf or evergreen blackberry (R. lactiniatus) has very deeply cut, nearly evergreen leaves with very large, sweet berries. This European import has been planted in urban and suburban parks throughout the United States and often escapes cultivation. It also ripens in August.

The dewberry (R. Flagellaria) is easy to distinguish because it creeps along the ground. Its especially tasty berries ripen in July and August. Dewberry grows on the East Coast, whereas the similar California blackberry (R. ursinus), with somewhat flattened prickles, grows on lower elevations on the West Coast. The cloudberry (R. chamaemorus) is non-woody and thornless, inhabiting mountaintops and the far north.

Raspberries belong to the same genus as blackberries and people often confuse the two subgroups, especially because there are red and black raspberry species, but they’re easy to tell apart. Blackberry canes have flattened surfaces or planes, while raspberry canes are always rounded. This distinction is even easy to see in the winter.

Furthermore, when you pick a blackberry, the receptacle, the enlarged area at the apex of the stem that bears the berry, comes off the stem along with the berry. The receptacle remains behind when you pick a raspberry, so it’s hollow.

Mulberries superficially resemble blackberries, but they grow on thornless trees not canes, and each mulberry hangs from a short fruit stalk, which blackberries lack.

Blackberries grow in thickets in sunny or partially shaded disturbed habitats, places where the previous vegetation has been removed. They’re especially abundant in fields behind the seashore.

Native Americans used controlled fires to create these disturbed habitats, increasing the land’s productivity for many edible/medicinal wild plant and game species. Explorers and colonial Americans, used to fenced-in agricultural or garden plots, were astonished by what looked like parkland in the “wilderness.” The contemporary commentator Le Jeune wrote that: “Strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are to be found almost incredible quantities.” Today, proponents of permaculture try to create similar habitats.

Cut-leaf Blackberry

A blackberry is made up of many tiny, rounded, shiny berries stuck together—an aggregate fruit. Each tiny berry in the cluster has its own seed, so one animal eating one fruit spreads many seeds.

IN THE FIELD

Because blackberries are thorny and ripen in the hottest part of the summer during mosquito season, it’s best to wear long pants and sleeves, plus a sun hat while foraging. Check out the long-range weather forecast and plan to gather as early in the morning as possible on the coolest days. Bring along plenty of drinking water.

Native American women and children, the main berry pickers, tied small splint baskets to their waists in front, with a cord passed through the handle. They would empty these containers into larger pack baskets lined with large basswood leaves. Colonists probably adapted similar methods. Nowadays you can follow suit by punching a hole in a small plastic food container, inserting a key ring or cord into the hole, and attaching the container to your belt with a key clip. When the container is full, empty it into other containers in a backpack.

Heavy-duty work gloves make blackberry collecting faster and safer. If you’re right-handed, cut the fingertips off the right glove, so you can move the branches around with your left hand and grasp the berries with the fingertips of your right hand.

Pick only completely ripe berries, which come off the cane readily with the slightest tug. Partially ripe berries, which you have to force off, are bitter.

Learn to recognize blackberry canes without berries or leaves, so you can spot them all year, and choose your foraging location beforehand, focusing on the sunniest places where the highest concentration of canes grow. Places where wild food plants really thrive make for the best foraging.

Not every year is equally good for blackberry crops. Too little sunlight in the spring, brought about by weeks of rainy weather, limits necessary photosynthesis and ruins the crop. So does severe drought in the summer. (I teach foraging in the New York metropolitan area, and when drought curtails the regional crop, we head for the thickets of Central Park, where officials react to the weather by watering the grounds.)

Avoid places that are obviously polluted or sprayed, such as railroad rights-of-way. Areas within 50 feet of heavy traffic may be contaminated by heavy metals. Use common sense—treading on canes destroys and defaces the source of your food—and be discrete.

Not everyone understands that collecting renewable resources is environmentally innocuous. If possible, bring children along. Kids love collecting berries, and positive nature experiences in childhood creates a life-long interest in nature and conservation.

Beware of poison ivy and poison oak, which grow in the same habitat as blackberries. The three-part palmate compound leaves look like blackberry leaves but without the fine serrations, and there are no thorns.

Wild blackberries are great eaten raw and added to fruit salads, or baked into pies, casseroles, cakes, cobblers, or other desserts. They’re much tastier than commercial blackberries, but they also contain the hard seeds, which can be quite annoying in puréed recipes such as ice cream, jam, smoothies, or sauces. To avoid the seeds, pass the purée through a strainer.

Once you’re hooked on wild blackberries, you’ll find yourself planning forays for this remarkably good traditional food resource year after year.

Blackberry Flower, side view

A bush with budding flowers

Cut-leaf Blackberry in Flower

The blackberry's toothed leaves are compound—divided into segments, called leaflets. Since the leaflets originate from a point rather than a line, they are called palmate-comound. Each leaf usually has 3 to 7 sharply toothed leaflets.

Naturalist-author "Wildman" Steve Brill has been leading foraging tours in parks throughout the greater New York area since 1982. His Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places (William Morrow Publishers, 1994) is considered a classic on the subject.