Picking wild blackberries requires some special preparations. You have to be dressed properly, and you need the right equipment. There are some rules to follow. You have to accept the risks involved, but there are rewards, like blackberry cordial, blackberry syrup, and blackberry jelly.
Dressing down is must when picking blackberries: your oldest jeans, a sturdy long-sleeved shirt that you won’t cry over if it gets snagged, a hat, thick socks, and boots or tough athletic shoes. Why all these precautions? Because there just might be no thornier plant than a wild blackberry.
Where I grew up, on the northern California coast, two kinds of wild blackberries grow. The true, wild blackberry is a small-leaved, thin, trailing vine that produces a small, sweet, yet tangy berry. They are getting hard to find because the other “wild” blackberry, the ones I grew up picking and calling Himalaya blackberries, are taking over and choking out the original wild blackberry. And it’s far too late to eradicate the Himalaya berries, so we might as well enjoy what they produce. What they produce is twelve- foot-long runner canes armored with half-inch long, wickedly curved thorns, and large, delicious, sweet blackberries. If it were possible to wear gloves while picking these blackberries, I’d recommend it, because just about every surface of the plant is lined with thorns, large and small, not just the canes. The bearing spurs are covered with thorns, the veins down the middle of the leaves are lined with thorns, and each little berry stem is coated with them. There is no way to avoid being scratched when you are picking these berries. That’s one of the risks you accept when you decide to harvest blackberries.
As far as I can tell, these are the berries which grow in my garden, and therein lies a tale. When we moved into our house 27 years ago, I found blackberry plants in the flower garden. What gives? I thought. I moved them into the garden proper along the fence and fought the roots in the flower garden (I still am digging them up!) while I tried to nurture the ones I’d transplanted. They never really got enough water until I expanded the garden and began to water areas I’d never paid a whole lot of attention to before. Suddenly, after 15 years of producing only a few small, sour berries I left for the birds, those blackberry vines took off. Now they cover a twenty foot section of garden fence, and I pick between 6-10 gallons of berries from them every year, with a lot more going to the birds.
For a month, while the berries are ripening and I am picking, my hands look like I practice self-torture. There’s no way to avoid it. If I don’t get out early enough in the morning, before it gets so hot that I can’t tolerate a long-sleeved shirt, my arms look the same way. And my legs. So there’s one of the rules for successful blackberrying. Pick while it’s cool, so you can dress properly.
The sturdy shoes are important because you may have to climb a ladder or step inside the patch to pick the best berries. The best berries, the largest, sweetest, and ripest, are always just that step, that stretch, away. It’s a challenge to try to get inside the patch without doing too much damage to it. In the wild on the coast, nobody cares; there are so many berries, a little temporary damage doesn’t matter. And if you want to see damage, just look at a blackberry patch after a bear has been through it! But it’s a different call when you’re picking your own patch. You don’t want to do anything to lessen the harvest next year. So you need the right tools.
I already mentioned a ladder. It’s an essential. When I was a kid, we’d drag old boards to the patch and set them up like bridges, so we could “walk the plank” to the highest and best berries. If I tried that now, I’d end up face-planted in the patch for sure, and believe me, a blackberry patch is no place to fall into. Besides the ladder, a hook is useful, like this one.
My handyman husband fashioned this hook for me last year. It’s useful for bringing the fruiting spurs toward you to pick, so you don’t have to lean too far out over all those thorns. (I also used it for picking apples from the top of my little tree last year.) If you don’t have any wire handy, a straightened coat hanger will work. And you need a bucket or a wide-bottomed bowl to put your berries in. It’s important that your container have a stable bottom, because the worst thing in the world is to put all that effort into picking those delicious berries, just to have them spill in the dirt, or worse, in the middle of the patch where you can’t get to them to pick them up again. Whatever you use to hold your berries while picking, if you can have both hands free, it’s a bonus.
When you are surrounded by plants which can protect themselves, and it’s amazing how blackberries do that, sending out huge, thick runner canes which grow over the blossoms after they’ve been pollinated, effectively creating a thorny fence fit to keep a princess from all comers, balance is key. Obviously, physical balance is important. Do not fall into the blackberry canes!
But there’s another kind of balance, and it has to do with risk and reward.
As I said before, the biggest, juiciest, ripest, best berries are always going to be just out of reach. You can try to go after them; you can even get a few of them, but at some point, you have to realize that some of them will remain out of reach. Accept this. If you don’t, bad things befall. (There’s that word again.) There’s a line between giving it your best effort and becoming obsessive. I have stopped asking Dennis to help me pick blackberries because he simply cannot avoid the obsession. He can’t let those very top, very best berries go. He’ll chop his way through the patch if he has to, sacrificing berries now green which will be nearly as good as those few he can’t reach, just to get to the biggest ones. He’ll waste a gallon of future berries to get a pint of the best. I can’t justify it. Sometimes, you have to let those berries go. Leave them to the birds. They’ll enjoy what you can’t reach, and the berries won’t be wasted.
Finally, if that perfect blackberry drops into your cupped palm, the one so sweet and juicy just the slightest pressure would have it bursting in your hand, there’s only one thing to do. Pop it into your mouth.
It strikes me that picking blackberries is a lot like life. You have to dress appropriately for the job, make sure you have the right tools, reach for your goals, but keep your balance and perspective. Play by the rules, and you’ll be okay. Go too far, and you’ll incur damage of one kind or another. And you have to stop and enjoy the gift of the moment as well as the rewards of your labors. You can see what kinds of things I think about when I’m out picking blackberries.
Here are two wonderful old recipes I’m delighted to share, and a hint about where to find another. The first is a recipe my sister’s father-in-law gave me twenty years ago. He had been making blackberry cordial from this recipe for at least thirty years before he gave it to me. I have no idea where he got the recipe, but this stuff is delicious!
Tip’s Blackberry Cordial
9 cups blackberry juice
2 cups sugar
3 cups vodka or brandy
Bring blackberry juice and sugar to low boil and simmer for 8 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes and add vodka or brandy. Pour into clean bottles (brandy or vodka bottles work well for this) and cap tightly. Stores indefinitely.
The next recipe is one I’ve used for over 30 years. It was given to me by a friend from the church we attended in Klamath, CA, for several years.
Ruth’s Blackberry Syrup
1 cup juice or crushed fruit
1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup sugar
Bring all ingredients to a hard boil; boil for 30 seconds. Pour into hot, sterilized jars. Process 5 min. in boiling water bath to seal.
This year, I plan to try replacing the corn syrup in this recipe with agave nectar. To do that, I’ll reduce the sugar to ¾ cup, so the basic ratio would be 1 c. blackberry juice, ¾ c. sugar, 1 c. agave nectar. This recipe works well with all kinds of fruit juices. I have made it with raspberry and strawberry as well. For strawberry, simply puree the fruit very finely but do not strain it.
For the best blackberry jelly without pectin and half the sugar, try Liana Krissoff’s “Old Fashioned Blackberry Jelly” in her book, Canning for a New Generation. This jelly tastes amazingly fresh and fruity because the recipe calls for just enough sugar to sweeten, not overwhelm, the blackberry flavor.
I hope you’re lucky enough to find a patch of wild blackberries to pick. For me, there is no sweeter fruit than a sun-warmed blackberry just plucked off that thorny stem.