Purple: adj. a color intermediate between red and blue
Poop: n. excrement (but you knew that).
I know when they’re ready for picking without tasting a single one; I just look down at the sidewalk near my house and see purple seedy bird droppings. From the color of the walk, we’re now at the height of the season.
It’s Blackberry Central here in the Pacific Northwest. The bushes (Rubus, spp.) can be found wherever the dirt remains untended in vacant lots, by the road, along the walking paths. They are hardy and ingenious plants, doing whatever they can to ensure the survival of the species.
The long vining branches take root wherever they touch the ground – and with a plethora of thorns they protect these rooting branches from their human enemies who would destroy them.
To prevent the thicket from becoming too thick, blackberry bushes use their fruit to entice birds to spread the gospel far and wide. In a bird’s belly, the berries mix with certain chemicals that help the seeds germinate once they hit the ground in plops of purple poop.
Over the years farmers have bred fancy berries that have no thorns, that are plumper, that are bigger – but IMHO none of them can compare to the deep flavor of the real “wild” thing. Some of the most important commercially grown brambles are actually blackberry/red raspberry hybrids. Think Boysenberry, Loganberry, Marionberry and Youngberry.
Blackberry picking is part treasure hunt, part dance, part meditation. First you have to find the right bushes. Some look promising as you speed by in your car, but when you return later with the pail you discover that the berries are dessicated, under-ripe, or much less accessible than it first appeared.
New rule: However tall you are, the best berries dangle just six inches higher than you can reach.
If you find a good spot, and no one has beat you to it, you have to activate special berry sensors. The best berries often lurk just out of sight a few inches into the bush, so you have to “be with” the bush for a few minutes before your eyes calibrate on your tender targets. Your fingertips ever-so-gently palpate each berry to feel if it’s plump enough to pluck.
But no grabbing! Carefully rock the berry off its stem. If it resists at all, it’s not ready. If one of the drupelets near the stem is still red, the berry will be sour. Leave it. (A berry is made up of a collection of fleshy drupelets, each one encasing a seed.)
Retrieving berries without ruining your clothes or shredding your skin is where the dance comes in. Counter-intuitively perhaps, it’s best to wear a short-sleeved T-shirt (unless you’re picking at dusk when the mosquitoes are out). This way you can snake your arms into the bush past the thorns without getting snagged in a bunch of fabric. It’s a dance.
Time stops because you can think of nothing else when you’re picking berries. You have to be totally present to do the dance without getting hurt. You have to be totally present to sense and corral your prey. And finally, if the briar-patch is big enough, the quest keeps on, and on, and on.
“Just this one more cluster…”
“Oh, and THIS cluster… ”
Once a season, I make my favorite dessert of all time: blackberry cobbler. Served warm with vanilla ice cream. Omigod.
I freeze most of the berries, though, so I can enjoy them on my cereal through the long winter, reminding me that summer will come again.