by Linda Martinson
An annual bounty of wild blackberries ripens in July in the Blue Ridge Mountains along fencerows, trails and country roads, and in fields and meadows. Blackberries and raspberries, often just called ‘bramble fruits,’ are a large and diverse group of species and hybrids in the genus Rubus, which is one of the most diverse genera of flowering plants. All of these hundreds of species are also members of the Rosaceae family, which includes roses, almonds, apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, and strawberries, the closest cousin to blackberries and raspberries.
Blackberries and raspberries are both formed by the aggregation of several smaller fruits, called drupelets. These drupelets are all attached to the fibrous central core of the fruit, called the receptacle. When raspberries are picked, the receptacle stays with the plant so a picked raspberry looks hollow. When blackberries are picked, however, the receptacle stays with the fruit. Raspberry drupelets are also hairy and stick to each other, while blackberry drupelets are smooth and hairless.
There are two main species of raspberries: red and black. Blackberries, however, are generally considered the most taxonomically complex of any fruit crop, and are usually lumped together as one aggregate species, Rubus spp.. This familiar flowering fruit with its tough thorny stems, that seems to grow everywhere, is then split out into many species by country and region, with dozens in the United States alone. There are hundreds of cultivars, too, i.e., deliberately developed combinations of native and cultivated species, and these can readily become wild, too. For example, common names for wild blackberries growing in North Carolina include flowering blackberry, dewberry, swamp dewberry, southern dewberry, Himalaya blackberry (an escaped cultivar that produces big berries), sand blackberry, sowtest blackberry, true blackberry, high bush blackberry, and spineless blackberry.
In Western North Carolina whatever we call them, we are most likely to be picking wild blackberries derived from a species indigenous to the Southeast (Rubus travialus) that doesn’t require hard winters to produce berries. Blackberries are native to Europe and Asia and to North and South America, and have been used in Europe for over 2000 years for eating, medicinal use, and as hedges. In the United States, records exist from the 1600s of selecting and replanting superior native blackberries and crossing them with species brought from Europe, and university-level breeding efforts to breed blackberry plants with big, sweet berries began in1909. Unlike many other edible fruits, blackberries are easily propagated by several techniques and are both cross and self fertilized, so they crossbreed easily and can also become quite invasive and weedy.
According to forestry reports, wild blackberries are at the very top of the list of summer foods for wildlife. Over 100 bird species depend on blackberries as an important food source including game birds, such as turkey and grouse, and numerous songbirds. Other blackberry consumers are deer, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, bear, and box turtles. For us humans, ripe blackberries contain antioxidant pigment compounds called anthocyanins, which stimulate our immune systems to flush out carcinogens and other harmful toxins in our bodies. Because blackberry plants only produce berries on two-year old canes, they quickly form thorny thickets that are a boon for wildlife habitat. Fortunately, there are plenty of blackberries for everyone.
It is so pleasant to pick blackberries on a summer evening, after suiting up against the chiggers and thorns and warning the snakes away. The light is lovely, and the picking is methodical and soothing with the background music of summer insect sounds. It’s easy to become lost in musing about early agriculture attempts by the Cherokees to select shoots from the very best berry bushes to plant in this meadow by the river….or to think about how entire families went out to pick blackberries during the Depression, selling them to truckers who came twice a week to pick up berries to resell to the companies that made jam, jellies and wine from them. Maybe they established this excellent large blackberry patch by the river?
It was in a small forest clearing, however, that I had my most memorable blackberry picking moment. I caught a small movement out of the corner of my eye, and turned my head slowly to see a golden colored mouse scampering along one of last year’s brittle canes with a small nursing mouse baby attached to her. She was a rather large and colorful mouse with somewhat prehensile feet and tail, and she seemed only curious about me, not afraid. She stopped and cocked her head and, because she was at eye level and only a few inches away, we had a good opportunity to look each other over. Then the dog came over to see what was happening, and the golden mouse dropped down with her baby still attached and disappeared.
It was indeed a golden mouse (Ochrotomys nuttalli), the single species in the genus, and I was fortunate to see one. Golden mice are are generally nocturnal and semi-arboreal, spending much time as high as 30 feet above the ground, using their prehensile tails to hang onto branches. Their range is in the southeastern United States from central Virginia south and, although four subspecies are recognized, there is only one in the Southern Appalachian region. Like chipmunks, golden mice have cheek pouches and they carry their primary diet of seeds to open feeding platforms in trees. They are gregarious creatures, sharing their feeding platforms and building communal sleeping nests, also in trees but sometimes under logs and stones on the ground. They have a long life span compared to other rodents — one golden mouse in captivity lived to be over 8 years old. They also develop more quickly than most mice, walking on their first day of life and able to hang upside down by their tails on day four. They apparently make good pets, because they are quite docile and easily tamed. I hope to see another one in the blackberry patch some day.
And, don’t forget to make some blackberry cobbler while the blackberries are ripe!