One of the easiest wild foods to identify, wild blackberries are a popular fruit to pick and eat even among people who don’t forage regularly. In addition to the virtues of being easy to identify, they are delicious, healthy, available in large quantities, and expensive to purchase in stores. As children, we used to go on family outings armed with large 5 gallon buckets to pick wild berries for jams, syrups and other preserves. We also stuffed ourselves silly on berries, which was most of the fun!
Wild Versus Cultivated Blackberries
Here in the southeastern United States, we have several wild “blackberries,” including the Southern Dewberry (Rubus trivialis), Garden Dewberry Rubus aboriginum), Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis), Field Blackberry (Rubus arvensis) and of course the non-native invasive Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus armeniacus). The Himalayan Blackberry is the one you will most commonly see. It forms large brambles along woodland edges, fence lines and in untended pastures. Fruit from stands of wild Rubus spp. will vary in size, taste and productivity.
Most cultivated varieties of blackberries are hybrids of the Himalayan Blackberry crossed with another species. Clones of high quality plants are given a name and sold as a cultivar. Because they are clones, they have consistent taste and characteristics. One of the most prized characteristics is being thornless, which certainly makes for easier growing and harvesting.
But cultivated varieties are not as hardy as their wild counterparts. My thornless, commercial blackberry bushes have struggled to survive in a spot where I have been fighting back wild berries from invading. Growing nearby on my property are wild berries superior in flavor and productivity. Next year, I’ll be encouraging and tending those high quality wild bushes instead of continuing to babysit their weaker cousins.
Finding Wild Blackberries
The best times of year find stands of wild berries are in the spring (April – May), when their prolific bright white flowers can be spotted from a distance away, or in the late fall and winter when it’s cold and clothing heavy enough to protect from thorns and brambles is welcome.
In the winter, most blackberries are partially evergreen in Alabama. The leaves may turn purple or have purple edges, but most plants will have at least some leaves on them.
Make a note of these foraging spots, and come back when blackberries begin ripening in mid June. Dewberries and Black Raspberries ripen starting in mid May. Pick fruits which are fully black but have not yet begin to dry out or grow mold. If the fruit looks unpleasant, don’t eat it.
Remember: foraging on public lands (such as in parks) may be forbidden or require a permit, and foraging on private land without permission is rude. It’s also trespassing and may be considered theft by the owner who intended to harvest those plants herself. Always ask permission.
What to Take on an Excursion
- Gloves thick enough to ward off the worse of the thorns
- Long pants with a durable fabric, such as jeans. Looser is better.
- Bug repellant.
- Boots. Birds love berries; snakes love to eat birds. Most snakes will flee at your approach, but if you disturb one, they might bite. While the risk of being bit by a poisonous snake is very low, boots are recommended for caution’s sake.
- Buckets with a sturdy handle.
- A friend or two or three.
Because quality varies, taste a few to ensure they are what you want before doing a lot of work. Even if you get a batch of blackberries too tart for your taste to eat fresh, you can macerate them in a little sugar to make a fruity topping for pancakes, cheesecakes and other treats. Or make jams and preserves, either the easy recipes for refrigerator and freezers or the more time consuming recipes for canning. Berries can also be frozen whole, but will be soft when defrosted.