The continuing discoveries of a 21st century artist and naturalist …
Blackberry picking in the summer started out as a sweet diversion.
I grew up in a housing development where the only distinction between the houses was the number on the mailbox and which way the car port faced. The neighborhood was sectioned off in what roughly equated to three blocks and my siblings’ and friends’ escape and exercise was to ‘walk around the block’. In the summertime the days melded like the gravel-and-tar surface of the roads. Our bare feet adjusted to the surface heat as the days wore on and we popped tar bubbles with our toes absent-mindedly as we talked with each other. But there was a small patch of woods on a vacant lot that we watched with anticipation.
Early in the summer we stopped there to pick honey-suckle blossoms and siphon the ‘juice’ from the bitten-off ends. The real treat came when the blackberries in that same spot ripened. We would stand, disregarding the thorns, picking and eating those tart-sweet berries a few at a time on each lap around the block. The sharpness of the thorns were unavoidable but that never interfered with our enjoyment. The ripening of those glossy clusters of berries marked the looming end to our unstructured off-season and had its own mixture of sweetness and sharpness.
In my early adult life picking blackberries moved from sweet diversion to a summer chore necessary to my making jellies and preserves. Making blackberry preserves was one of the branches in my desire to keep alive traditions of my family tree. I made apple butter and chow-chow because there was no one to do that when my Granny, my father’s mother, died. Making these preserves were a way of remembering my MaMaw, my stepmother’s mother.
A couple of weeks each summer were spent in the mountains of West Virginia with my MaMaw and PaPaw. On stormy days we played in the cool of the basement where, behind a cloak of curtains, were rows and rows of shelved treasures – home-canned foods from pickled eggs to green beans to jellies and jams. At every breakfast, along with cooked apples and applesauce, there was always a jar of homemade blackberry preserves on the table. Waking up to the sound of MaMaw humming or softly singing hymns as she prepared the morning meal merged together in my young mind with the sweetness of her blackberry preserves as solidly as the tar-and-gravel roads that led to my first wild berry picking.
So as I photograph the plants and flowers around my North Carolina mountain home berries have a special place in my portfolio. I have found that blackberries are only one of many berries growing wild on the mountain. Last week we met Deerberries and Purple-flowering Raspberries. Today we’ll explore a few more berry producing plants I’ve encountered.
I’m starting with the berry that has been the most challenging for me to identify the aptly named Prickly Dewberry.
So far I’ve only seen it in bloom and while I knew it was some type of ground berry plant I spent a long time determining which one it was. Only last night was I finally able to confirm that it is a Dewberry – and, oddly enough, more specifically a Northern Dewberry. Dewberries are related to blackberries but they are a ground vine with a growing habit similar to strawberries. I hope to get to see and taste the berries because according to the USGS they are “one of the tastiest wild species of blackberries”.
Family: Rosaceae; Genus: Rubus: Species: flagellaris
While we’re talking blackberries let’s take a look at the ‘official’ blackberry – if we can say there is such a thing. It seems there are numerous types of typical blackberries and below are the two I’ve come across in my wanderings. One of the creatures fond of blackberries are Eastern Bluebirds so our bluebird house is in just the right place….at the edge of the yard where a field of blackberry brambles begins.
Common Blackberry (aka Alleghany Blackberry)
Family: Rosaceae; Genus: Rubus; Species: allegheniensis
The other type I’ve only seen in the mountains whereas I’ve seen the common blackberry in the Piedmont as well. It is the Sawtooth Blackberry (aka Prickly Blackberry, Florida Blackberry, Southern Blackberry)
Family: Rosaceae; Genus: Rubus; Species: argutus
We’ve been looking down and around for a little while so let’s look a bit higher for our last berry of the day. The Highbush Blueberry.
This blueberry bush can reach up to 12 feet and flowers in May and June (depending on hardiness zone). The resulting berries are favorites of songbirds, mourning doves, ruffed grouse and pheasant. Oh! and let’s not forget how much bears enjoy them – so be careful picking wild blueberries!
Family: Ericaceae; Genus: Vaccinium; Species: corymbosum
So when you’re out this summer don’t forget to look in all directions – there are treasures to be found at our feet, over our heads, and all around – just slow down and take a look.