For many of us the advent of blackberry season is impatiently awaited – the idea of going out to pick these succulent, rich tasting berries that proliferate along roadsides and over ditches and are free, is an annual ritual that must be obeyed. Not only are they good for eating right off the vine, but they freeze well and provide a delightful treat in the dark hours of winter that brings back lovely memories of long summer days.
Since moving to Quadra Island, I have encountered the same berries that I have been accustomed to picking in Storries Beach, (the ‘foreign’ ones that were brought from the United Kingdom by early settlers) and that usually ripen beginning in August and leading into September. I have also encountered a variety that I don’t recognize and wonder if they might be an indigenous variety.
Blackberries are indeed indigenous to our area and I have seen small patches of the small, wild variety on my son’s former property in Storries Beach, as well as at Greene Points to the north where my friend’s cabin is. These native berries have a lovely taste akin to black currants.
However the variety I haven’t seen before grow as large as the non native variety, but aren’t quite as sweet. They also differ in that the bushes are incredibly thorny, and while the non native variety has quite a number of thorns (they are related to the rose family), this other variety is so prickly, that the tiny thorns will come right off the branch and into the flesh at the slightest contact.
When I first started picking blackberries, I would go to great lengths to get as many as I could and would venture deep within a hedge or reach high over a ditch to get at the most luscious of the fruit. After falling into blackberry bushes more than once, I have learned that it is usually seldom worth going too far to get at them as the pain and itching caused from thorns grasping at bare skin is usually not worth it. What we normally refer to as ‘trailers’ – the thick branches growing out over a patch that bear no berries but have huge thorns are especially insidious. Fortunately, often simply washing hands and arms with water and mild soap after picking can alleviate both the itch and the sting caused by encountering thorns, and I have found that tea tree oil in the cream form is very soothing to the skin. But now I try to avoid getting prickled. There are usually more somewhere, in an easily accessible place.
The beauty of blackberries is that they ripen at different times. A person can spend a whole month picking, as long as it doesn’t rain too much, since there are early and late patches of berries often right in the same area. If it rains too much, they ripen and turn immediately to mush, causing them to be too soft to pick. This year has been an exceptional year for blackberries with hot dry weather and just a small amount of rain. Sightings of ripe berries were reported as early as mid July and the few days of rain we just experienced will help instead of hinder their continued growth right into September.
Mainly due to the thorns, but also because of the dark red juice, it is important to dress properly for berry picking. Sandals aren’t recommended (this is from experience), and it is best to wear a long sleeved shirt – one of those types that are usually reserved for painting in. My mother, with whom I have often gone picking, brings along a Chinese back scratcher to pull down the high branches that often bear the best offerings. In fact, on her first trip to Vancouver Island she asked me about the blackberries. A fellow traveller enroute to the island suggested she might not want to miss berry season. Our berries are famous! That year, my mother was here too early to avail herself of this treat, but now that she lives here, she has staked out various patches around the town of Campbell River (and I cannot reveal their whereabouts) and we swap stories about our success or lack of success.
Like other berries, blackberries can be used in many ways. As I mentioned they are great for eating fresh and freeze well, and they are excellent in jams and pies, crumbles or any baking. They also make great juice. This year my daughter, who has a plethora of bushes around her house, has picked enough blackberries to make wine with them. The local vintner advises bringing five gallons or 20 litres of the frozen berries to him, and he will take care of the chemistry of turning them into wine. Mmm – just in time for Christmas!
One phenomenon I can’t figure out at my new place of residence, is why the deer chose to deposit their droppings right in front of the berry bushes. Do they stand there and eat blackberries, and poop at the same time? Or are the bushes a barrier to where they want to go, so they might as well take a pause or bathroom break if you will? In any case, it has occurred to me to collect the droppings to use as manure, but that is a whole other topic. For now I will praise the blackberry bush that offers its fruit up freely and abundantly for those intrepid enough to venture past its thorns.