A Wedding and “Wild” Blackberries

We spent the weekend at Anderson’s Bambooland, just east of Monroe, Washington, nestled between U.S. Highway 2 and the Skykomish River. The wedding was perfect, thank you. Thus, as of last Saturday, my young ever-eager fishing partner – formerly known as Boyfriend-in-Law Brian – graduated to Son-in-Law Brian.

Upon completion of the ceremony and all necessary pronouncements, the wedding guests and party surrounded the now-all-in couple. As Katie and Brian mingled, glowed, laughed and caught their collective breath, more and more of their fans drifted toward the perfectly-chilled malt beverage tap and growing piles of the amazing food one finds at these celebrations.

Bambooland is known for its acres of fine flower beds, orchard, and bamboo plants. And, virtually everything on the property is surrounded by blackberry brambles – those ubiquitous, unstoppable, Himalayan blackberries. At some point in the post-ceremony festivities, Cousins David and Debby Yount asked when we would pick blackberries. After all, they surmised, Diane and I would have to pick berries for Daughter Tena in Denver anyhow, so why not make a party of it on Sunday morning? Done.

As they turned back to more pressing matters, one of the other guests asked, “So what about all these berry tangles? I hear these are native to the West Coast… and not. They’re everywhere. What’s the story? How did they get everywhere?” Thus, another gauntlet dropped and I was duty-bound to pick it up.

We have three “growing wild” blackberries in the state.

Our only native blackberry is Rubus ursinus, commonly known as the wild mountain blackberry or the trailing blackberry, with some calling it a Northwest dewberry or Pacific blackberry. Some maintain that the “ursinus’ part of the name comes from the fall bears fattening on them. This is not a sprawling tangle, it trails across the ground. Its berries are smaller and sweeter – more delicate – and not that shiny black. Mountain blackberry’s juice runs a bright red and its seeds are tiny. They seem to be most commonly found on burned- or logged-over slopes of our east Cascades and on islands along the west coast.

Our two non-native blackberries produce large, seedy, and delicious berries. Both were introduced as food plants and both are now considered invasive Class C noxious weeds. The lesser known plant is Rubus laciniatus, the cut-leaf blackberry or evergreen blackberry – native to northern and central Europe. It has deeply incised leaflets in groups of three along its long thick trailing stems. Our more common blackberry is Rubus armeniacus, the Himalayan blackberry or Armenian blackberry its rounded, fine-toothed leaflets are in groups of five.

Both plants are highly invasive and almost impossible to control. You can’t miss them: they form large, extremely vigorous thickets of long tangled, dense canes covered with long (very sharp and backward-angled) thorns. (Blackberries are in the rose family, after all.) Plants joyfully reproduce with new canes forming almost wherever an older cane touches the ground, and the roots almost constantly send out new suckers. In King county, both species are on the non-regulated noxious weed list. Control of them is not required because they are so widespread throughout the county and the rest of Western Washington. (Control is recommended in protected wilderness areas and in natural lands that are being restored to native vegetation.)

The backstory of these berries is as tangled as the thickets themselves. Ann Dornfeld told the tale on Seattle’s NPR station, KUOW, in August, 2016. At the end of the 19th century, Luther Burbank, a contemporary and friend of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, was determined to help folks moving west to easily grow local fruits and vegetables. Looking for seeds and plants which could take the rigors of rail and sea travel, he traded seeds with European colleagues and crossbred plants to produce those he considered to be best for certain areas – like the Pacific Northwest. His work in Santa Rosa, CA, produced plants like the Shasta daisy, freestone peaches and plums, elephant garlic and the potatoes most used today for fast food French fries.

Burbank worked to develop a thornless blackberry, but in a package he’d ordered from India was a huge, great-tasting blackberry. He called it the Himalaya Giant (now believed to have originated in Armenia). The blackberry grew like wildfire in temperate areas (that’s us). A mere decade after its 1894, introduction Burbank’s berry was moving across the Puget Sound region. It was soon known simply as “the Himalayan blackberry.”

Our Sunday picking? Well, true to form, we paid blood and skin for our many gallons of black beauties. (Best man Ed might have called it, “The cost of doing business in brambles…”) As the four of us worked our way down a long wall of thorny, fruit-laden Himalayan blackberry canes, various exclamations drifted by. I kept hearing “Wow, look at the size of these – Ouch!! Oh da#$@! – berries.” And “These are so – Ouch!! Ouch! – sweet and abundant! Ouch! Ach!”

Thank you, Luther Burbank. RIP…

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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