During the 1990s, areas of Sullivan County were devastated by both the gypsy moth and cankerworm. After the trees died, many areas became heavily covered with blackberries,
Blackberries, along with raspberries, are known as "brambles." Although no one knows exactly how many varieties of brambles there are in eastern North America, more than 500 species have been named.
Our word "bramble" has several meanings in different Germanic languages; however, as with many plant names, brambles does not always refer to the same plant.
For instance "bramma" in old High German is a wild rose and, in old Saxon, "hiopbramio" is a hawthorn bush. All of these names come from prehistoric Germanic "braemoz," meaning thorny bush.
Blackberries have erect stems, which usually are angled in cross-sections, armed with large sharp spines and most often have five leaflets.
Raspberries have erect canes, which either are without spines or with weak hairless spines, and usually have three leaflets. The fruit of the raspberry is thimble- or cap-like, with the dry receptacle (the swollen part of the plant stem that forms the base of the flower) remaining on the bush; while, in blackberries, the receptacle itself becomes fleshy and is removed along with the fruit.
Red raspberries frequently are found in acid barrens at higher elevations.
Blackberries generally occupy an intermediate temporary stage in both old fields and timber sales; however, they quickly are eliminated as overgrowing trees provide too much shade.
The origin of the word "raspberry" is a mystery. At first, the fruit was known simply as "raspes," with the berry not tacked on until the early 17th century.
The word "berry" comes from the Germatic word "baji," with its earliest use seeming to have been mainly used for grapes.
During a family outing, we noticed some purple flowering raspberry bushes, which most often are found abundant in shady places in the woods, along roads and in thickets. The plant has large leaves, rose-purple colored flowers and branches covered with bristly hairs. These berries do not taste good.
Brambles are perennials; in most species, the roots live for many years, while the stems live for only two years. The first year stems usually are sterile and have leaves unlike those of the second year.
In most species, flowers appear in May and June, with the fruits ripening in early summer.
Brambles produce from seeds, sprouts, layers and underground stems. Growth of most brambles is more vigorous in full sunlight than in shade.
Blackberries found growing in the shade often are nearly or quite thornless and produce very little fruit. In full sunlight, the thornless habit disappears, with fruit production greatly enhanced. On the other hand, raspberries do better in partial shade.
Blackberries and raspberries are at the top of the summer food list for wildlife. Even dried berries persisting on the canes are eaten to some extent into the fall and early winter months. However, wildlife will most often eat the fruits when they are juicy.
Although birds are heavy users of the fruit, they also are important to raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels and other small animals. Deer and rabbits also will feed upon the leaves and stems. Of course, it's this wildlife that spreads the seeds that allow the brambles to invade new areas.
Raspberry canes grow in such a manner that, by late August or September, the tips reach the ground, and many of these will form new plants naturally.
Native American women drank raspberry-leaf tea throughout their pregnancies. During labor, a woman would drink a hot, stronger version to quicken and ease the birthing process.
During World War II, "fragarine," which is the active ingredient in raspberry leaves, was discovered by obstetricians as a relaxant of the uterine muscles, an aid in childbirth.
However, it is important to remember that raspberry leaves containing moisture also contain hydrocyanic acid, a dangerous poison. Wilted (but not thoroughly dried) raspberry leaves in uncured hay is a danger to cattle, while leaves in fully dried hay produce no ill effects to the cattle.
The English settlers in the New World prescribed blackberry leaves made into a tea for diarrhea, dysentery and as a healing gargle for sore throats. When the colonists revolted against England and imported tea became costly and unpatriotic, they drank a substitute tea of blackberry leaves. A wine was made by boiling the young leaves and new tips, with sugar, and then setting aside for a year before drinking.
It appears this will be an excellent year for blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. In August, plan to spend a day on the mountain, picking berries. The labor that goes into picking these wild berries makes them all the more delicious.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.