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Berry Watch 2013 // Part 6: Blackberries

I’ve been reading a chapter called “Wild Pickings” from Irish chef Denis Cotter’s Wild Garlic, Gooseberries… and Me: A Chef’s Stories and Recipes from the Land. Cotter talks about his adventures in foraging for greens, mushrooms, fruits, and sea vegetables, as well as the cooking experiments that he carries out with his findings. In his discussion of picking blackberries, he talks about what an effective intergenerational activity it can be.

  Wild Garlic, Gooseberries... and Me  by Denis Cotter. A great book for recipes, foraging info, and engaging narratives about food.

Wild Garlic, Gooseberries... and Me by Denis Cotter. A great book for recipes, foraging info, and engaging narratives about food.

Says Cotter, "Picking blackberries is pure pleasure. For kids, there is no misunderstanding, no wondering what this nasty stuff we’re collecting is about. The berries are sweet, and the slight thorny challenge only just enough of a problem to make them feel adventurous and appreciate the reward. Don’t get preachy, but you will know that you are making future memories; building and nurturing connections and stretching them into the next generation. This is how traditions survive, with the merest fingertip contact with the past. If blackberry picking is the easy link, it may well be the portal through which another generation may pass in order to explore the wider possibilities of wild foods." (p. 122-123)

 A cluster of blackberries at various stages of ripeness near Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park.

A cluster of blackberries at various stages of ripeness near Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park.

I love this description of gathering blackberries. Listening to Cotter illustrate the taste of the berries, the sting of the thorns, and “fingertip contact” – which makes me think of a ripe berry resting between my thumb and forefinger, ready to slide effortlessly off of the shrub – speaks to the power of these wild fruits to create a lasting sensory impression upon the people who choose to collect them. I know that when I pick blackberries, the pain of the prickles, the pillowy ripeness of the berries, the feel of the leaves against my wrists, the bright magenta shock of the juice from accidentally crushed fruits all help to tether my memory of the fruit to the shrub that provides it.

I give blackberries a lot of credit for being my “portal” into “the wider possibilities of wild foods”. It was about three years ago that I began to notice clumps of blackberry bushes in a few different parts of my neighbourhood (an observation likely guided by the taste of a friend’s homemade wild blackberry jam). After picking my first bucket of urban blackberries that August, I began to wonder why I had thought that the expensive store-bought berries were my only option. At that time, I also casually wondered what other foods were up for offer in local parkland, forests, and on the side of the road. I heard rumors about apple and pear trees around the city, and about people picking edible weeds for use in salads. I wondered about other wildberries, too – aside from blackberries, were there other plentiful local pickings to be had in the summer? Through my explorations of Stanley Park this year, I’ve been able to grow that inquisitive seed planted by the blackberry into a small tree of knowledge (see the Berry Watch posts).

I’ve also come to learn more about the blackberry itself through my study of Stanley Park. I’ve discovered that there are different kinds of blackberry shrubs that exist along the coast, all with varying levels of power. The Himalayan blackberry shrub (Rubus discolor), for example, is sturdy, sharp, and ubiquitous. The blackberries that you’ve picked in the park, on the side of the road, or in an industrial lot are likely from a Himalayan blackberry thicket. Nature has a complicated relationship with the Himalayan blackberry here on the coast. In one sense, it is a generous provider of gourmet fruit for anybody with a bucket, and, as described above, a forger of sense memories and connections with the natural world. In another sense, it is like the condo developer who is trying to take over your humble neighbourhood. It is an invasive species (see my previous post) that greedily expands into spaces that could otherwise be enjoyed by the native plants and shrubs that belong to the coastal land. Sometimes the branches of the Himalayan blackberry arc and re-root at their tip, creating an occupation of horizontal space, a chain store. Himalayan blackberry shrubs can grow quite tall (up to 5 metres), and are loaded with fruit… though they often like to tease short folks like me with a wealth of sweet, ripe berries that are a foot out of reach!

 The top of a tall Himalayan blackberry shrub - most of these berries are out of my reach!

The top of a tall Himalayan blackberry shrub - most of these berries are out of my reach!

 Sometimes Himalayan blackberry branches form arcs and re-root at the tip. 

Sometimes Himalayan blackberry branches form arcs and re-root at the tip. 

I’ve also learned about a blackberry that grows closer to the ground on more delicate stems, produces a smaller fruit, and is native to coastal British Columbia – it is called the trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus). I encountered ripening vines of this blackberry along the sides of the Stanley Park forest trails in July. I liked the sense of surprise that I felt upon seeing this plant – unlike the Himalayan blackberry, which boldly makes itself known to the public, the trailing blackberry requires a keen eye and a bit of patience, as it hides closer to the ground. Unlike the Himalayan blackberry, some trailing blackberry shrubs are male and some are female - so only the shrubs with female flowers bear fruit.

trailing_blackberry.jpg
 A couple sightings of trailing blackberry along the Stanley Park forest trails in late July. 

A couple sightings of trailing blackberry along the Stanley Park forest trails in late July. 

You also might see cutleaf (or evergreen) blackberry shrubs (Rubus laciniatus) around coastal BC. Like the Himalayan blackberry, these shrubs are not native to BC and are considered invasive. They can be distinguished by their leaf shape – each leaf contains 5 leaflets with very frilly edges.

 A cutleaf blackberry shrub spotted at Crab (aka Portside) Park in Vancouver.

A cutleaf blackberry shrub spotted at Crab (aka Portside) Park in Vancouver.