The blackberries are not what they seem.
They seem native, growing wild wherever they want, thriving along riverbanks, roads, railroad tracks, and trails; inside state, county, even Seattle city parks.
These abundant berries—great for pie and jam—are synonymous with summer in Washington state, particularly on the west side, where they take over greenbelts and backyards, abandoned lots, urban alleyways, and logged lands.
They grow, as it were, like weeds.
Emphasis on weeds.
Himalayan blackberries (Rubus armeniacus) are not only not native, they’re invasive. And they’re not actually Himalayan.
Call them the state weed of Washington. The plump, juicy, deep purple, and delicious weed of Washington.
The Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board classifies these ubiquitous, deep-rooted, bullying blackberries as a Class C noxious weed.
They tantalize, and they torture. They taste like summer: succulent, soft, bright, ripe, slightly tart, mildly woodsy, mostly—and wonderfully—sweet. But they will scratch you.
And good luck trying to get rid of them. Mowing and burning aren’t effective. Plus, they typically regrow after herbicide application. And they can live 25 years or longer. Degraded or poor soil quality doesn’t even bother them. In fact, they flourish in it.
If you love Washington’s strong-willed Himalayan blackberries, thank Luther Burbank. If you don’t, blame him.
The sharp-thorned brambles, a member of the rose family, stem from the self-taught plant breeder’s altruistic dream of providing the late nineteenth century’s burgeoning middle class with a continued supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. In his experimental garden in Santa Rosa, California, Burbank worked to cultivate new, prolific varieties—from a freestone peach to the popular Burbank Russet, or french fry, potato.
He also sold seeds from a seed catalog and regularly traded seeds with horticulturists from around the world. The seeds for what he dubbed the Himalaya Giant came in the mail from India, though the plant is native to Armenia and northern Iran. In 1885, he introduced it to American consumers in a special circular.
“After it came to its own, so to speak, its popularity was so great that for several years the plants could not be multiplied fast enough to meet the demand,” Burbank later wrote, noting, “It is a plant of extraordinary vigor. A single cane may grow more than twenty-five feet —sometimes even fifty feet — in a season, and attain near the base a diameter of an inch to an inch and a half. The aggregate growth of a cane of a single plant in a season may exceed a thousand feet — one-fifth of a mile. And in point of fruit production, the Himalaya far surpasses any other berry ever grown. Reports tell of a single bush bearing two hundred pounds of berries in a season.”
Burbank found that the Himalaya Giant, now simply known as the Himalayan, likes temperate regions along the Pacific Coast. And so, in 1894, he marketed the woody perennial shrub to customers in the Pacific Northwest with a targeted flyer. By the early 1900s, the Himalayan blackberry, now very popular, was thriving throughout the Puget Sound region. Birds and animals helped scattered the seeds during the rest of the century, and Himalayan blackberries became so common that many people believed they were native.
But tenacious Himalayan blackberries along with their cousins, evergreen or cutleaf blackberries (Rubus laciniatus), also introduced from Eurasia and considered a Washington state weed, choke out other plants, prevent the establishment of native trees that require sun for germination, block access to rivers and wetlands, and mask eroding banks.
As early as the 1940s, some Puget Sounders already considered Himalayan blackberries to be a nuisance. In a column for the Seattle Times on March 30, 1944, horticulturist Cecil Solly, hailed as “the original master gardener,” encouraged gardeners to plant victory gardens, suggesting blackberries could aid their efforts. But, he noted, “One of the most pointed pieces of evidence that gardeners are planning to grow and increase supply of vegetables and fruit is the number of letters asking how to get rid of blackberries.”
Today, because both Himalayan and evergreen blackberries are so widespread, control is recommended but not required. The Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board classified both varieties as weeds in 2009.
In June 2018, the Himalayan was King County’s Weed of the Month. Its Noxious Weeds blog referred to the Himalayan’s aggressive sprawl as “an ecological disaster,” not only in Washington but “throughout much of the United States.” Parts of Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island teem with the bramble that the pioneering plant breeder introduced more than a hundred years ago.
The irony isn’t lost on Rick LaMonte, founder of Northwest Wild Foods in Burlington. “Someone should have sent him to a psychologist,” LaMonte says of Burbank and his efforts to market what has become a prickly and pervasive problem.
Don’t get him wrong. Himalayan blackberries “make a wonderful honey. And, when they’re fresh, they taste really great. They’re nice and sweet.”
But there is, LaMonte says, a better blackberry, one that’s been here all along. The trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus) is native, smaller, and more flavorful, its taste sweeter and more intense. But it can be harder to find. Look for the low-growing and less robust species chiefly west of the Cascade Range, particularly in Island and Skagit counties, and the South Puget Sound region.
“People never give away their secret picking spots,” LaMonte says. But he does offer this advice: “You’re going to find them on stumps in logged-off or burned areas, but not beside the road. You usually have to go in a little bit.”
He grew up picking trailing blackberries around his family’s old farm in Tumwater. “Shelton’s got a ton. Raymond, too. They’re very hard to pick because they’ve got little stickers, little thorns. It takes time. Even if you’re careful, you’re not going to get away without any having any stickers in your hands. They really are a pain in the butt to pick.”
That’s part of the reason, LaMonte says, “they’ve always been expensive.”
A 3-pound bag of frozen wild trailing blackberries costs $49.99 at Northwest Wild Foods, where they are currently out of stock. By comparison, Walmart sells frozen blackberries for $1.98 per pound, or roughly $6 for 3 pounds.
Still, orders have picked up at Northwest Wild Foods since the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than a year ago. “It hasn’t hurt us,” LaMonte says. “There’s just been a boom.”
All three varieties—Himalayan, evergreen or cutleaf, and the native, wild, trailing blackberry—can be canned, frozen, eaten fresh, cooked in compotes, or baked in pies, scones, cobblers, muffins, and more. They’re good in both sweet and savory sauces, and pair well with lamb, pork, duck, beef, and venison.
Other pairings: almonds, apples, apricots, basil, black pepper, blueberries, cinnamon, clove, cream, ginger, hazelnuts, lemon, lime, mango, mint, nutmeg, peach, plum, orange, oregano, raspberry, rosemary, sage, strawberry, tarragon, thyme, vanilla, and white chocolate.
Can’t beat them around these parts. So let’s eat them.
That is, LaMonte says of the trailing wild ones, “if you can find them.”
Wild berries (Summer 2021)
More wild berries
On the web
From the archives: Behold the blackberry (Fall 2009)
Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board page on Himalayan blackberries
Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board page on evergreen blackberries
“The Strange, Twisted Story Behind Seattle’s Blackberries” (NPR’s The Salt)