Space Invaders – A Word on Himalayan Blackberries

bb1Here in Beautiful British Columbia we get a lot of immigrants from all over the world. Sure it’s Canada, the “melting pot” and all that, but here in BC it’s especially common to run into people, products and flavours from far off places. It’s one of the things that I love the most about the West coast. Sometimes though, adding some new spice into the pot can be disruptive. A brief story to illustrate:

Once upon a time an immigrant came to the Northwestern Coast of BC. 

The journey was long and arduous, but the immigrant was unhurried and unafraid. Across the great unending oceans the immigrant came packed in the rolling holds of steamships. Over mountains the immigrant soared, hiding away on planes amongst sackcloth bundles of dried seeds. Through the plains the immigrant moved fast, rambling from place to place, hitching rides and jumping into ditches whenever the ride became too rough.

On and on the immigrant went until the motherland was but a distant memory and only the warm embrace of the new land mattered. Here was a place to settle down! The immigrant spread roots strong and deep into the community and fostered a large family. As the family grew conflict with neighbours became more intense, leading to aggression and war. And the natives of this new land looked upon the immigrant and saw only an invader.

Alright that was a bit melodramatic, but I think it coveys the tension and inevitable conflict between the new kid on the block and the old guard. The unbalancing of an ecosystem is a simple matter, if you’re an invader with a natural toughness, some crafty survival tricks and a desire to expand. If it isn’t obvious by this point, I’m not talking about people, this is about plants. Big, tough, gnarly, hard-to-kill plants that figured out how to survive (and propagate) by offering neighbours free food.

bb2The Himalayan Blackberry is a huge flowering shrub originally from Iran and Armenia (don’t ask me where the name came from) that has been invading the whole length of North America since 1885. An American botanist with good intentions and very little foresight brought cane cuttings from Europe (where they had already made a name as a very hardy and fast-growing berry) to supplement the popular and over-picked wild blueberries.

Within a couple decades the cultivated bushes spread to the wild through dispersion by birds and rodents. The invasion was on! Now, more than a century later the Himalayan Blackberry has become such a recognizable part of the landscape that even lifelong locals think it’s a native plant.

The Bad News – Himalayan Blackberries are bloody everywhere! They have muscled in on every ditch and sidewalk, filled backyards and march along highways like columns of legionaries. Their roots go deep and their thick, wickedly-barbed tentacles stretch up as high as 9 feet! They tower over the tallest native Salmonberry and Thimbleberry bushes and use their height and girth to starve smaller plants like Oak saplings and the native trailing blackberry of desperately-needed sunlight. Year after year they stretch fresh green stalks over the bones of the previous, creating thick, almost impenetrable briars. They eat up the landscape like wildfire, are hard to uproot and naturally hasten erosion. They are in short: Totally badass.

The (Sort of) Good News – Unlike similarly-destructive invaders like Scotch Broom and Purple Loosestrife, the Himalayan Blackberry has been largely tolerated and in some cases embraced by Westcoasters because of the staggering amount of berries it produces. During it’s peak ripening in August a single blackberry bush will offer gallon bucket-fulls of berries week after week. Compare that to the modest Ziploc container-full you’d get from most native berry bushes. Blackberry bushes want you (and the local wildlife) to eat your fill and give some to your friends and spread as many of the tough little seeds hidden in the sweet berries as far as possible. It’s like a PR campaign with free buffet, handshake and a “Vote for me!” button on the way out. And it worked.

bb3Love ‘em or hate ‘em, blackberries are here to stay. And despite their nastier tendencies they are now a part of our lives, geography and West coast identity. When it’s late summer, we all smell that distinctive sweetness on the wind and grab a bucket. I once read that; “Every Blackberry picked and eaten is another bush that won’t taker root”. Let that be your mantra as you forage!

I’ve already discussed where to find these massive bushes – Go for a drive! You’ll spot them easily along the highways – And touched on their identifying features (think big, sharp brambles, white flowers and serrated leaves), so it’s about time to arm yourself to go picking. Believe me, blackberry bushes are nasty pieces of work and are a bit trickier and more painful to forage from than most wild fruits. I’ve gone out picking in shorts and flip-flops and returned home covered in jagged cuts and welts.

What you will need to Forage for Blackberries

  • Long Pants – Do not think you will reap this edible excess without paying a price. Blackberry bushes are thick with long bloodthirsty brambles that are ravening for a naked knee to snag and sink into. I know it’s hot, but at the end of the day all those jagged little pinpricks add up, and you can change back into your boardshorts after you’re done.
  • One Big Bucket – At least a gallon is what you should expect filling in an hour. If you have a couple ‘o people on your picking team you should give them each a bucket (think movie theater popcorn-sized) and have them dump into the big bucket when they get full.
  • Gloves – This one is totally optional, but you should know that your hands will be filled with tiny thorns and stained purple after only minutes of picking. Your call.
  • A Stool or A Long Crooked Stick – A blackberry bush’s  sweet spots (the highest concentration of big, ripe berries) are split into the bottommost layer of stalks (nearest to the ground, covered with leaves and catering to small mammals) and the topmost canopy (easy pickings for birds). Those massive communes of berries up top can be almost eight feet in the air, so efficiently netting them will involve either increasing your height, or carefully dragging them down to your level.

 

Ripe berries will be completely ebony in colour and full-to-bursting with juice. The texture of the drupelets should be soft and yielding (sexy!) and the berry should almost fall off of it’s stem at the slightest touch.  With a bit of practice you can spot a bursting berry from within a group of slighty-less ripe ones and move in for the kill.

Don’t try to palm too many of them at once. Many times I’ve hit a rich vein and just kept extending my fingers farther and farther out only to end up losing half my haul or squishing those already in my possession. Just nab a couple and drop them in the bucket before going back in.

bb4The experience of slurping down a perfectly ripened blackberry is like… Drinking midnight. The ichor inside is the sweetest, most sensual taste I’ve ever experienced in a wild berry. It’s deep and voluptuous, but with just enough tannic sizzle to keep you from going into a full-on sweetness coma. It’s no wonder they make such great wine!

Even under ripe berries will have that underlying hum of sweetness mixed in with a harder, more acidic kick (think balsamic vinegar). You’ll get one every so often that looks and feels perfect, but for whatever reason has a slightly sour imbalance. C’est la vie.

Blackberries are really versatile to cook with. Traditionally given center stage as a dessert with a flaky pie crust or soft vanilla-tinged custard as backup, they rock just as hard with savoury and fatty stuff like pork, duck and soft cheeses. In both the sweet and savoury realm, blackberry’s best friend is thyme. This particular herb brings out the wilder side of the berry, giving it some jagged edges and highlighting more of the taste of the vine. My most memorable dish was a blackberry and thyme cheesecake at the Kingfisher resort way back in the Ronald St. Pierre days. It’s was so light, and deeply berry-tasting.

bb5I was able to nab a bucketful ‘o berries last weekend during my vacation (Yeah I actually took a week off!) and (surprise!) I headed straight for the kitchen. It’s still summer enough for a BBQ, so I’m thinking it’s time to unleash my patented Blackberry-Hoisin BBQ Sauce! I’ll have the recipe and pics up soon as I clean the purple stains off of my hands.

4 thoughts on “Space Invaders – A Word on Himalayan Blackberries

  1. My favorite way to pick blackberries is to wear elastic pants and tuck a one quart yogurt container in the front. The elastic waist band holds it in place and frees up both my hands for picking. When the container is full I put on the lid and start another. Works like a charm.

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