Of the Rubus genus, the blackberry plant is a hardy and adaptable perennial that can grow just as vigorously in nutrient-stripped wastelands as it does in the verdant wilds of the forest. Comprising of more than 375 species, blackberries can be found all over the world. Its ubiquity, sweet tasting fruit, and ease of identification makes the blackberry plant a favorite among novice and expert foragers alike.
Features of the Blackberry Plant
There are several blackberry cultivars that are native or naturalized to the climates of North America. These span the cutleaf blackberry (R. laciniatus), Himalayan blackberry (R. armeniacus), sawtooth blackberry (R. argutus), California blackberry (R. ursinus), elmleaf blackberry (R. ulmifolius),and Allegheny blackberry (R. allegheniensis).
Identifying these and other blackberry species isn’t difficult since they share the same noteworthy characteristics. Blackberry plants are woody shrubs that send out arching canes that can grow to a length of up to 20 feet. The prickly stems with straight or curved thorns take root where they touch the soil, forming dense brambles that can quickly colonize new lands. Clusters of green leaves alternate along the cane and are often oval shaped with serrated edges.
A biennial plant, blackberries do not produce fruit or flowers during the first year of new growth. In its second season, the canes develop small white or pink flowers with a profusion of yellow stamens in its center. Blackberry fruits are not berries per se but are technically aggregate fruits made up of numerous drupelets. Fruits are first white or green in color, turning red and eventually darkening to a bluish-black once they are ripe and ready to be picked.
Sourcing Blackberries in the Wild
Blackberries grow practically anywhere there is an abundance of sunlight. Search for them in natural meadows, field edges, the margins of rivers and ponds, and along rural roads. The can be found in places where the earth has been disturbed – clear cut and abandoned lands for example or in sites of past forest fires. Most types prefer a balanced, mesic climate, though some species of blackberry grow in wet marshes while others may be found in dry, sandy conditions.
Southerners can pick ripe wild blackberries as early as spring. Further north, harvests can persist until late summer to autumn.
When foraging for blackberries and other bramble plants, wear gloves and protective clothing. Brambles can be dense and seemingly impenetrable and their thorns can easily slice through flesh and fabric. You can fashion a berry picker from a length of PVC pipe to capture the hardest to reach fruits.
Though all aggregate fruits with drupelets like the blackberry and raspberry are safe to eat, you may wish to bring a field guide (like this one) with you to properly identify blackberries as well as other wild foods you may encounter.
The Nutritional & Medicinal Wonders of the Blackberry Plant
Long used to treat many ailments in British folk medicine, the entire blackberry plant – from fruit, to leaf, to root – has a rich variety of uses:
1. Eat them Raw
Fresh, raw blackberries are an excellent source of dietary fiber, vitamins C and K, and manganese. Blackberries also offer the highest levels of antioxidants among fresh fruits, containing a suite of powerful phytochemicals such as catechins, gallic acid, quercetin, rutin, and of course anthocyanins. These key nutrients work in tandem to protect the body from cancer and cardiovascular disease, slow the aging process inside and out, and boost memory function. They also possess antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. After the harvest, simply give them a good wash and pop ’em in your mouth for a sweet and healthful snack.
2. Blackberry Pie
A time-honored way to enjoy blackberries, this pie is a wonderful summer dessert made with 4 cups of fresh blackberries.
3. Blackberry Jam
4. Blackberry Ice Cream
Put your ice cream maker to good use with this cool and refreshing blackberry ice cream, topped with chunks of chocolate.
5. Blackberry Arugula Salad
A quick and easy summer salad, toss together fresh blackberries, baby arugula, crumbled blue cheese or gorgonzola, and finish with a zingy citrus vinaigrette.
6. Blackberry Juice
A concoction of blackberries, cucumbers, green apples, and celery!
7. Blackberry Wine
Indeed, you can make your own heady brew of blackberry wine provided you have the requisite wine making equipment on hand.
8. Blackberry Leaf Tea
When foraging for blackberry, be sure to pluck off some leaves too – they also contain an impressive array of antioxidants and are especially rich in tannins, phenolic acid, flavonoids, vitamin C, and ellagic acid. In traditional medicine, blackberry leaves were used as an astringent, an anti-inflammatory, and as a treatment for diarrhea.
When harvesting blackberry leaves, select only younger green leaves. To enhance flavor and therapeutic properties, ferment the leaves by gently crushing them with a rolling pin. Wrap the leaves in a damp cloth and hang in a warm spot. In a few days the leaves will smell like roses. Remove from the cloth and set them out to dry, turning them every few days. Once completely dried, cut or crush them and store in the freezer.
To make a simple tea, steep two teaspoons of blackberry leaves with one cup of boiling water for 10 minutes. To brew a stronger decoction, boil 4 cups of water with a ½ cup of blackberry leaves and allow it to simmer until half of the water has boiled off.
Drink the tea for its antioxidants, to treat sore throats, and to soothe an upset stomach. Let it cool and it can be used topically as a compress for flesh wounds and rashes.
9. Blackberry Root Tincture
Like the leaves, blackberry roots have a long history of use as a treatment for dysentery and diarrhea, relief from painful childbirth, and as a remedy for toothaches, inflamed gums, and mouth ulcers.
While the roots can be dried and made into tea, you can also create a powerful tincture. To make, dig up and cut away several pieces of blackberry root. Wash them well and chop them up into small pieces. Because roots are quite concentrated, you’ll want to combine them with 80 proof alcohol or apple cider vinegar at a ratio of 1:5 by weight. Place all ingredients in a clean jar, set in a spot that receives indirect light, and give it between 4 to 6 weeks to infuse.
10. A Blackberry Plant to Call Your Own
Though setting out to forage for foods is a fun adventure, you may wish to bring some of your prize home with you. Wild blackberry plants are easily cultivated from a stem cutting and can be planted in your backyard for an endless supply of fresh fruits, leaves, and roots