Saturday, July 20, 2013
Blackberries: A Love/Hate Story
I'm not terribly fond of blackberries. Their texture is too complex, their flavor unpredictable. When I was very young, I often confused them with raspberries because we rarely had either in our house. In Southern Illinois, where I live now, I don't know that anyone grows them for sale. Really, there shouldn't be any need because they seem to be growing everywhere I look.
Blackberry brambles--they aren't exactly bushes, and not quite vines--aren't picky about where they take root. Their tough, slender branches shoot directly out of the ground, be it rich soil or poor, soil that's sun-soaked or shady. Our upper meadow didn't get bush hogged (a kind of wide, flat mower that's pulled behind a tractor) last year, and so it's full of them. But so are the edges of our yard and driveway.
Up in the meadow they line much of the walking path we keep mowed, forming two prickly walls that keep the dogs from dodging into the tall grass. The brambles reach my shoulders--sometimes they seem to reach for my shoulders--tangling themselves together about halfway up. Their delicate stems and even their leaves are freakishly barbed. And I don't use the word freakishly lightly. If you get too close to any part of the plant, the barbs will catch on your clothes, your hair, your skin. Especially your skin. The barbs on the leaves are like tiny, silver hairs themselves. Hairs that can lodge in one's palm like a splinter from a cheap wooden garden stake, or leave a fine, bloody trail along the pad of an index finger.
The past couple of years, I've followed the progress of the bushes nearest the house. A spray of delicate white flowers against the sparse leaves in early June, then the arrival of petite red berries a month or so later. I saw very few of the berries ripen from red to purple/black. (Is it any wonder they get confused with raspberries? They start out quite red.) It seemed like one day they were there, and the next they were gone. Last year several flocks of grackles and small blackbirds visited, overwhelming the feeders--but the berries might also have been devoured by the many cardinals, finches, chickadees and indigo buntings that live around us.
I wondered about the other animals who eat blackberries. There's a surprising list here, including skunks, voles, mice, deer, and raccoons. They're all much less tender-skinned than I am.
This year, I've been determined to take some of the fruit before the birds eat it all. The first day I gathered about a 1/2 cup of small, tart berries, toting them away in the bird seed funnel. My arms got scratched up, so the second day I put on a light jacket before approaching them. I should probably have worn gloves as well. But these wild berries are so fragile, I would have squashed them while trying to pluck them from the branches. It's a careful process. Between the barbs, the thick tangles of the branches, and the nests of poison ivy at my feet, I felt like I was daring something of consequence.
In flavor, the blackberries from both the meadow and the yard are quite tart. Almost bitter. The plants in the meadow are younger, and so the berries seem to be smaller. I gave some to my son for breakfast and he ate most of them, delighted that they had come from our land. He didn't seem to mind their flavor. I eat them one at a time, stunned by their strength.
Last summer, after their berries were gone, I had a section of blackberry plants that had encroached too far into the yard sprayed with weed killer. Fifteen or twenty brown, bare brambles rise, tall and lonely, from their bed of last fall's leaves. Their barbs are still sharp and unapproachable. I feel a little sad about them, but I'm also surprised because the plants around them are vigorous and covered with leaves and not a few berries.
I guess it's the finality of their death that surprises me (despite knowing that they were taken out with the most obnoxious of chemicals). Blackberry plants are so relentless. Their desire to spread is fierce and their adaptability astonishing. They reproduce through asexual runners as well as through their flowers. With their barbs and tangled vines, they're masters of self-protection, jealously guarding their own fruit.
For a long time, I've felt like these plants--that so boldly encroach a little more on my yard and garden each year--are my enemies. But I now enjoy a kind of grudging respect for them. How they are like me, and so many people I know: driven but self-protective; bearing fruit that is sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet. Fruit that is fragile and hard to grasp, but so often worth a small letting of blood.