Blackberry is a flavor of fall in the Pacific Northwest. Whether you sample blackberries straight from the bush, still warm from the sun, or bake it into a pie and top it with a cool scoop of ice cream, it’s a deep, sweet taste that conjures up those last days of sunshine.
Blackberries live in the rose family and are close relatives of red raspberries. Their commonly cultivated versions include the black and shiny marionberry and red-black hybrid Boysenberry. Both varieties are available mid-July through early August here in Washington. They are grown mostly on farms in the Puyallup and Mt. Vernon areas and sold fresh or as a u-pick fruit. In Oregon, on the other hand, much of the fruit finds its way into jellies and jams.
The blackberry we see most, especially around Puget Sound, is the Himalayan—a noxious weed to most farmers and county road workers. The plant was likely introduced in California by Luther Burbank in 1885. He called it the Himalayan giant, because he believed it to be of Asian origin. But the plant has, in fact, been traced to Europe. Since its introduction in the early 1900s, it has crawled up the coast to Washington, where it crops up at the edge of forests, along roads, and in vacant lots. “These are the mounds that crawl over small houses and big cars,” says Jim Kropf, director of the Northwest District of WSU Extension. “They will take over.” Branching from one root ball, the Himalayan blackberry bush can grow up to 15 feet high and have trailing canes that reach 40 feet long. The thickets choke out other foliage and prevent the establishment of trees.
People devise all kinds of ways to get rid of their Himalayan blackberries. Some use goats, some pesticides, and some—risking a severe scratching—will prune a tunnel to the middle of the bush to attack the crown. But even that can sometimes spur growth, says Kropf.
Most people just tolerate the plant and even take advantage of it. It has a long season, ripening into October. And there’s nothing illegal about harvesting fruit from the bushes that grow along roads and in public parks. Just be sure they haven’t been sprayed, says Kropf. The plants may look healthy, but he always cautions people to do their homework since many counties spray herbicides along their roads for weed control.
The vigorous bush’s abundant fruit is in some ways a payment for the use of the land. We look forward to the days in autumn when all we have to do is walk down the road, or into a park, to pick a pail’s worth.