Edible brambles are everyone's favorite hiking snack. They grow along hedgerows, in the borders of woods and fields, and occasionally right in the backyards of city and suburb alike. We find blackberries and raspberries as delicious today as our ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago. Unlike other cultivated berries, these globe-trotting, practical prickers have been around for a long time.
Blackberries: A Brief History
Blackberries are a member of the rose family, Rosaceae. They are closely related to the raspberry in growth habit. Both plants produce biennial canes and perennial roots and crowns. These biennial canes grow erect, semi-erect or put out trailing stems throughout their two-year life span. When they are ready to bear fruit, these canes produce black or reddish purple fruit. Each fruit is composed of aggregates of drupelets, dangling deliciously from thorny stems.
It is easier to locate places blackberries have not put down roots than to isolate every blackberry stronghold. Blackberries are native to temperate climates across the globe. Native peoples and animals in North America, South America, Asia, and Europe enjoyed this succulent treat for over 30 million years. The only continents where blackberries do not grow native are Australia and Antarctica. Antarctica remains blackberry free to this day. Australia, on the other hand, is experiencing a blackberry invasion. The thorny plant is an invasive species on the continent and has infested roughly 9 million hectares.
The blackberry has not changed very much over the years. Over their 30 million year life span, blackberry varieties interbred and self-selected into thousands of varieties. Scientists are not sure exactly how many strains of blackberries exist in the wild.
Ancient cultures enjoyed more than nibbling on the juicy fruits. Blackberries have a high tannin content, making them an astringent. Many peoples used them to lessen bleeding, help treat minor infections, alleviate hemorrhoids and tighten tissue. The fruits and leaves were used for a variety of common afflictions. Ancient Greeks treated gout with blackberries and the Romans used the leaves to treat sore throats, diarrhea, and mouth ulcers. Ancient Egyptians found an additional use for the dark fruit: hair dye. Perhaps blackberries assisted Cleopatra in her seduction of Julius Caesar.
Blackberries have an interesting history. Early Christian peoples associated the berry's dark juice with the blood of Christ and the canes with Christ's crown of thorns. Other cultures associated blackberries with witchcraft. Blackberries were supposedly used both by witches and by ordinary families to deter evil spirits. The only spirit the blackberry is legitimately associated with is blackberry wine.
The Blackberry Today
Blackberries were not cultivated until recent times. Most people seemed content to harvest the berry from the wild. Americans were among the first to attempt to tame the bramble. Judge Logan began experimenting with blackberry varieties in 1880 at his home in California. The result is the Loganberry we know today.
Judge Logan's attempts caught the interest of other fruit growers. Several strains of thornless berries appeared shortly after his Loganberry hit the market. Growers today still experiment with thornless varieties, aiming for hybrids that do not suffer in quality or taste. One of the most successful varieties is the Triple Crown Blackberry. This thornless variety produces large fruits on vigorous plants with a delicious flavor.
Many gardeners get around the thorns by cultivating thorned varieties carefully. Pruning, trellising, and protective gloves make blackberries an excellent addition to the backyard garden. Wildlife love blackberries almost as much as humans. Bears, birds, and many other animals are attracted to the sweet berries. This makes for interesting sight seeing while picking wild berries.
Raspberries: A Tangled Past
Red raspberries have a slightly different story than their blackberry cousins. The fruits of the raspberry are distinguishable from unripe blackberries in two ways. First, the fruit of the raspberry separates from the receptacle. The berry appears hollow, leaving behind the pale receptacle on the stem. Second, the fruit itself is covered with fine hairs, unlike the smooth aggregates of the blackberry.
Raspberries put out biennial canes that bear fruit in the summer and autumn. Some varieties bear fruit in the cane's first year when it is called a primocane. Others wait until the canes become mature floricanes in their second year before they yield a berry crop.
Raspberries are hardy, opportunistic plants. Greek legend claims that raspberries were discovered on Mount Ida. The Greeks went so far as to name the berry Idaeus, which translates to “from Mount Ida.” Seeds found in Roman settlements around Europe indicate that the Romans promoted raspberry cultivation and may have been the first to do so. The Romans brought these seeds with them to England during their conquest.
Northern Asia, Eastern Europe, and North America all have native raspberry species. Like blackberries, these species are hard to separate into distinct varieties because so much hybridization, cross-breeding, and self-selection occurred naturally.
The raspberry plant is historically associated with pregnancy. The berries and leaves are rich in iron, potassium, phosphorous and magnesium. Women throughout history drank raspberry tea and raspberry juice to ease difficulties during pregnancy and labor.
Raspberries are cultivated around the world for their delicious and nutrient dense fruit. Several summer bearing and everbearing varieties are produced commercially. The variety varies depending on the region. There are even odd colored varieties like the yellow “Goldie” available for the more adventurous berry lovers.
The hardy nature of raspberries makes them a locally invasive species. Raspberries are among the first plants to reclaim soil after logging or a fire. Their ability to quickly colonize soil open ground makes them a nuisance in certain areas.
Be A Part Of History
Be a part of the lengthy history of blackberries and raspberries by planting a few canes of your own. These hardy perennials yield a healthy, delicious crop year after year, provided they are properly cared for. Both berries come in thorned and thornless varieties. If you don't want to cultivate blackberries or raspberries on your own, consider finding a local grower or wild patch near you.