I have a love/hate relationship with Blackberry bushes (Rubus fruticosus). I love the generous quantities of sweet, succulent berries they offer up every summer; these make a wonderful impromptu snack on the trail or a hat-full for a pie. I hate the plant because they try to make you pay in blood for coming in contact with them.
What makes them this way (and helps them latch on to other plants) are their sharp, little thorns. The botanists say they don’t have “thorns” as such, but instead, have something they blithely call “prickles.” Right. That is not the term that occurs to me when I encounter them. These are their instruments for inflicting, pain on animals such as me who have to work around them or have the temerity to reach into their brambles to pick their tempting fruit. They retaliate by clawing at your flesh and even breaking off in it. This modus operandi is similar to the red-stalked, low laying Dewberry, a closely related species of Rubus.
The Blackberry’s roots are perennial, that is, they stay in the ground year in and year out. Every spring they sprout new stalks (called “canes”), leaves, flowers and berries. These canes arc out of the ground and hope to lean over on to something that will hold them up. Once established, they branch off and attempt to smother their neighbors, including their own kind. When they are new to a recently cleared area they can become obnoxious by taking over and creating an impenetrable briar patch.
I’ve been watching them colonize and establish a thicket at Camp Salmen along our bike path on the W-12 Canal. The brush was cleared to the ground three years ago in preparation of the path and blackberry plants popped up where there was plenty naked dirt and sunshine. In the second year their berries were small and tart. That didn’t stop someone from rifling the bushes and grabbing a mess of them before I could. It took a lot of sugar to make that pie palatable. This year the plants have bushed out even more with leaves that were much larger and darker. I first thought they might have been a different kind of plant with bigger and sweeter berries.
The berries aren’t really berries at all in botanical terms but are an “aggregate fruit” made of clusters of little, round “drupelets.” This week great, red clouds of tart, un-ripened red aggregate fruit are turning one by one into a bumper crop of fat, sweet, succulent blackberries. They may be ready to inflict pain but, if I’m careful, they’ll provide a lot of pleasure at the table.