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It’s that time of year to pick berries

The month of August is a delight for berry-pickers, with blueberries, blackberries and raspberries ripe and ready for picking. During August, one can easily spot an avid berry-picker by looking at their berry juice stained hands.

Blackberries and raspberries, which are also known as briars and brambles, are members of the Rosaceae family and closely related to the strawberry. Our word bramble comes from the prehistoric Germanic word broemoz, which in old English was changed to bremel and eventually to bramble. In old English, the word briars were used for any prickly bush, including the brambles.

Blackberries are a far more complex group than the red raspberries; however, the distinction between the two revolves around the fruit. All bramble fruits are aggregate fruits, meaning they are formed by several smaller fruits called dupelets. The drupelets are all attached to a structure called the receptacle, which is the fibrous central core of the berry. In raspberries, the receptacle remains with the plant when the fruit is picked, creating a hollow appearance. In blackberries, the drupelets remain attached when the fruit is picked, giving blackberries a bit more crunch than raspberries.

Raspberry drupelets are hairy and adhere to one another; whereas blackberry drupelets are hairless and smooth. The thorns of a raspberry are finer and more flexible than those of the blackberry. Black raspberries have more prominent thorns than the red raspberries. Also, red raspberries are unique in that there is some fall fruiting.

For the past two hundred years, blackberries (blackcaps) have been used in Europe for eating and medicinal purposes. Also, the plants have been used as a hedge to keep cattle in and people out. Blackberry juice was used to treat infections of the mouth and eyes. After peeling and boiling the roots and stems, the liquid was taken to arrest vomiting and as a remedy for dysentery.

A legend handed down in England warned the people to never eat blackberries after early autumn. The reason given was that when the devil was kicked out of heaven on Oct. 11, he landed on a thorny blackberry bush, cussing and screaming. On the same day every year, he avenges himself by spitting on the berries, making them inedible.

In the early years of our country, the blackberries growing in the woods were an important part of the food supply for the colonists, who had been familiar with the blackberry back in Europe. Native Americans cultivated the blackberry and used controlled fires to create good habitat for the plant. Today, blackberries are overlooked by most people except for the avid berry-pickers.

Blackberries and raspberries can be either semi-erect or trailing, with generally thorny plants producing renewal shoots (canes) from the ground. The plants are perennial, and composed of biennial canes, which overlap in age. Individual canes grow for one year; initiate flower buds in late summer; fruit the following summer and then die. During the first year, canes are called primo canes; however, after the second year when the canes flower, they are called floricanes.

Our common blackberry’s Latin name is Rubus allegheniensis. Rubus is Latin for bramble, briar, and prickly shrub and allegheniensis means it was first discovered in the Allegheny Mountains. The plants grow from two to eight feet in height, with very thorny erect or arching purplish canes. The berries, which ripen during the hottest part of the summer, go from green to red and to black when ripe. The completely ripe berries come off the cane with just the slightest tug; while partially ripe berries need some force to remove them, and of course, they are bitter.

“My berries cluster black and thick for rich and poor alike to pick.

I’ll tear your dress, and cling, and tease, and scratch your hand and arms and knees.

I’ll stain your fingers and your face, and then I’ll laugh at your disgrace.

But when the bramble jelly’s made you’ll find your trouble well repaid.”

— Song of Blackberry Queen by Cicely Mary Baker.

Now is the time for you to pull on your boots and take to the fields and forest to do some berry picking. The exercise will do you good, and when winter comes you’ll be well rewarded with blackberry cobblers and perhaps sourdough toast with blackberry jam. However, you could go to the local farmer’s market and purchase your blackberries like I did.

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