By Audrey Stallsmith
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it.
"Blackberry-Picking," Seamus Heany
I hacked some wild blackberry canes out of my daylily patch recently, to provide the lilies with more sun. The largest and leafiest canes, many of which stood taller than me, were fruitless first-year ones.
I should have attempted to dig the blackberries out instead, but I didn't want to disturb the daylilies' roots when the plants were on the verge of blooming. Besides, I'd decided to leave in place all the canes that actually had berries on them--until after I got a chance to harvest those succulent fruits!
Known simply as "bramble" in Europe, the blackberry proves its relation to the rose family by its thorny nature. There are actually quite a number of blackberry species, including the common European type Rubus fruticosus ("shrubby") and the American Rubus villosus ("covered with soft hairs").
Probably all of them have been reviled by generations of schoolchildren sent out to pick their fruits. You can, of course, purchase domestic blackberry bushes these days which are thornless. But, if you choose to go after the free wild berries instead, you'll probably have to pay for them with your blood! Maybe that's why the bramble stands for "remorse" in the Language of Flowers.
Those berries must be very ripe, as black as possible, to be sweet. If picked before that point, they retain some astringency in their flavor.
The tall canes sometimes arch over and root themselves in the soil again. Those natural arches were once considered magical healers for such afflictions as hernias, ruptures, boils, etc., and children were often dragged through them. After that painful process, no doubt many a young'un promptly proclaimed him or herself cured rather than having to endure it again!
One malady the astringent blackberry really does remedy--and quickly--is diarrhea. The canned berries or their juice make the sweetest cure for that affliction, though a tea brewed from the leaves is also supposed to work. Usually, however, there aren't any blackberry leaves available during the depths of winter--when "stomach bugs" are most likely to make their rounds. So It's always a good idea to preserve a few of your blackberries.
Blackberry's astringency is supposed to stop bleeding quickly too, which will come in handy for all the cuts the brambles inflict themselves! It may also help soothe sore throats and canker sores. If you are one of those people who get indigestion from tea, you probably shouldn't eat blackberries, as they too are very high in tannins.
The fruits actually ripen for longer than the week mentioned in the poem. Many European legends hold that they are cursed after Michaelmas (September 29), however, as the devil supposedly fell into a blackberry bush when he was expelled from heaven--and holds a grudge against the archangel who did the expelling!
Otherwise, however, blackberries are generally considered beneficial and even protective plants. They often offer refuge to rabbits being hounded by dogs anyway. The bushes were once planted to stabilize the newly-turned soil on graves too, though that may not have been all they were supposed to hold down!
We country people are always grateful for their bounty--and even for the thorns. We seldom value, after all, the things we get too easily!
Rubus fruticosa image is from The Natural History Of The Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia by J. E. Smith and John Abbott, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.