When asked what is a “blackberry”, apparently 82% of people aged 16-24 instantly imagined a mobile phone rather than a fruit, according to a 2013 survey for YouGov. They don’t know what they’re missing!
This glorious late summer weather [OK… this was written last week!] means that there’s still time to gather wild blackberries from the hedgerow, the fruit being the one upside of an otherwise aggressive colonising thug of a plant.
Mind you that’s running counter to folklore which says that October 10th the former Michaelmas Day [ie before the change from Julian to Gregorian calendars] should be the last day to pick blackberries because that was the day that Lucifer was expelled from Heaven. He is said to have landed on a blackberry bush, and unsurprisingly roundly cursed it. In other versions of the legend, he spat or even urinated on it! Of course like so many myths it has an underlying scientific basis: blackberries contain a high concentration of tannins which accumulate in the fruit over the season making later picked berries prone to bitterness, and of course the weather is also likely to be much wetter so the berries contain more fungus spores and are more liable to rot. For more on the story listen to this clip:
Blackberries have a long history of being eaten by humans, but a surprisingly short history in cultivation. Read on to find out more of the story behind the one of our favourite soft fruits.
Wild blackberries are relatives of the rose. Like their close relative the raspberry, they are “aggregate fruit” since each berry is really a cluster of tiny fruits, or druplets, each of which contains a seed. There are over 300 wild species in Europe alone, and they hybridize easily, but in Europe most of the deliberately cultivated varieties derive from one of two species. One is Rubus tomentosus which has vigorous upright stems, covered with barbed thorns. It has white or pale pink flowers and round fruit. The other is Rubus ulmifolius which has leaves that have a soft felted underside, thorns on the angles of its stems, pink flowers, and egg shaped fruit.
Apart from the obvious use of the berries the wild blackberry or bramble had other basic uses. In conjunction with hedgerow trees such as blackthorn and hawthorn They help make an ideal stock-proof barrier. The roots can be used to make an orange dye whilst the stems could be de-thorned, split and twisted to make surprisingly sytrong twine which was often used in broom and basket making.
They have a more modern and completely unexpected use today – solving murders! To find out how brambles can help in detecting crime listen to Dr Mark Spencer explain why brambles are a useful tool in his work as forensic scientist.
Blackberries get mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses , and a generation or so later Pliny the Elder suggests that their arching habit and their ability to tip-root easily led to gardeners trying layering with other plants. They crop up too in ancient Greek medical texts – such as Dioscorides. But during mediaeval times their association with Satan left them somewhat disreputable, although the fruit and leaves and sometimes even the roots are still often mentioned in herbals and books of physick. But when they did become ‘civilised’ and enter the kitchen garden?The first reference to garden cultivation I can find is in John Smith’s England’s improvement reviv’d (1670) where he suggests they are grown in a fruit garden in a large bed: “4 pearch in breadth with Rasberry, Blackberry, Barberry, Goosberry and Currant Bushes; All these are to be planted equally in several Beds, and the edges of the said Beds planted with Strawberries.” But despite their appearance in the kitchen garden it is clear they are still being grown for their medicianl value. Smith cites their use on ulcers and “the Sores of the fundament and the Piles”, and also says they were also considered “a powerful Remedy against the poyson of the most venemous Serpents” and for “good for young Turkies, Peacocks, and many other Poultry”.
After that as far as I can see most other mainstream gardeners ignore them for a couple of hundred years.. They don’t merit a mention in Abercrombie the great garden writer of the later 18thc, or such comprehensive horticultural books as Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Gardening, George Glenny’s The Gardener’s Every-Day Book of 1856 or Samuel Beeton’s Book of Garden Management of 1860. Instead it is the Americans who seem to have begun the process of domestication and hybridization. Even in the United States blackberries were ignored by gardening books until 1829 when The New York Gardener – a book of letters addressed to the author’s son – suggests that they “well deserve a place in the farmer’s garden and will liberally repay the expense of cultivation”. For the full comments see:
But somewhat surprisingly they are not usually categorized as blackberries but simply as varieties of raspberry, perhaps because several were hybrids between the two. Robert Hogg’s famous Fruit Manual (2nd ed) of 1860 for example lists ‘New Rochelle’ and several other American blackberries as “autumnal bearing raspberries with black fruit”.They were not universally popularly received. Thomas Rivers, the Hertfordshire nurseryman and fruit grower wrote to The Magazine of Horticulture the same year, 1860, that he had seen “many hundreds of hedges of our native English blackberry giving fruit as large or larger than New Rochelle…” He then embarked on a breeding programme himself, probably the first English nurseryman to do so.
Of course these American novelties only impacted on the trendy gardener who had to have the latest import.
Shirley Hibberd in The Amateur’s Kitchen Garden of 1877 says dismissively that there are half a dozen American sorts in cultivation and “they make a pretty collection for an amateur who cares about such things.” Instead he suggests growing a lot “to ramble over a rough bank.” He summed up his attitude beautifully in a short essay “The Land of Blackberries” in his book Brambles and Bay Leaves of 1862. This is Victorian romantic writing and nostalgia at its best as he reminisces about his childhood blackberrying in the rural retreats of Hornsey, Finchley and Old Ford! If there were space I would have included the whole piece but if you want to read it all then its available at:
Despite Hibberd’s preference for the bramble the later 19thc was obviously a busy time for blackberry breeding and selection. By 1906 the American writer Liberty Hyde Bailey in his book on The Evolution of Our Native Fruits devotes a whole chapter to the blackberry and his history. It was mainly a transatlantic story because, he claimed, in Europe brambles were still considered largely unworthy of domestication. He also provides a useful simple but comprehensive illustrated guide to the many American species, as well as a history of new hybrids and introductions to cultivation, which mainly dated from the 1880s and 1890s. This includes the comment that the best known of the resultant hybrids the “Logan-berry has not been sufficiently tested…to enable one to pass upon its merits as a competitor to the blackberry.”Cultivated forms, of course, are generally derived by carefully selecting from locally found wild forms, which are then further improved by plant breeding. As such they tend to share characters with the wild forms where they were bred. Nevertheless Most American cultivated varieties derive from just two species. One is Rubus allegheniensis from the eastern mountains has stout, strongly angled canes with large hooked thorns, showy white flowers with sweet fruit. The other is Rubus ursinus or the Californian dewberry has low trailing or climbing stems, armed with tiny, slender, hooked spines, white or pink flowers and long rather than round fruit.
You can read Bailey’s chapter in the full at:
By the late 188os and 1890s gardening books are listing blackberries, although still mainly American imports. However they were still often confused with, or were hybrid crosses with raspberries. Ten of “best cultivated varieties” are listed in a later edition of Beeton’s Garden Management [undated but c.1886] which goes on to say that the blackberry has sneaked in as ” a new candidate for a prominent place in the fruit garden”. Beeton recommends reading All About Blackberries by Viccars Collyer, a Leicester nurseryman but I have been unable to trace this anywhere so if anyone knows of its whereabouts then please let me know.
Beeton’s great rival Cassell’s Popular Gardening [1892 edition] also includes American blackberries as a subdivision of raspberries, although “they obviously partake more of the character…of brambles.” It too lists new American varieties but says that the latest – ‘Wilson’s Junior’ – was expected to supersede all of the earlier varieties, given that its fruit were said to be “4.5 inches round lengthways and 3.5 inches crosswise!” “The culture of these monster blackberries does not differ essentially from that of the raspberry. They are of freer growth and need more room…those who hesitate to introduce brambles into their gardens may easily plant them out in out of the way places.”
For the full article see:
One has to wonder what ever happened to ‘Wilson’s Junior’ because Thomas Sanders writing in Fruit and its Cultivation in 1919 notes that while such American varieties “were reputed to be worth growing in gardens” and to be “far superior in every way to the wild kinds” they had “signally failed to justify such high expectations.” This was almost certainly simply because of climatic differences.
Hybridization continued apace through the 20thc. In Britain it was concentrated at the John Innes Institute which used a thorn-free blackberry from southern Europe Rubus rusticanus as a new base for cross-breeding. This eventually led to ‘Merton Thornless’ in 1938. It was however ill-adapted to the climate of eastern America and it took 30 years further developing its resistance to frost, before ‘Smoothstem’ and ‘Thornfree’ the first commercial thorn-free varieties of any importance were bred. The Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee has taken the lead more recently developing New hybrids, such as ‘Loch Ness’ introduced in 1988, that can cope with the cooler conditions and much shorter growing season of the north.
More recently, the variety which is making a commercial impact is a Brazilian variety, ‘Tupi’ which had very large, flavoursome fruits ideal for the supermarket trade. Growers in much warmer climates such as Mexico have managed to produce two or even three crops a year. As a result commercial production of blackberries has shifted much further south than might be expected, with Mexico becoming the global leader. But climatic conditions vary so much from region to region that it is unlikely ‘Tupi’ will make much impact on the European market or garden. Other major growing regions are the USA and NZ where Wilsons Junior [and many other varieties] were introduced in the 1880s. NZ has a large breeding programme and several popular recent varieties, notably ‘Karaka’, have originated there. However the blackberry still remain very much a second rank fruit in the European market.
A trial of 19 different blackberries and their hybrids began at Wisley in 2011 to see what varieties will do best in Britain and also to help distinguish between the various hybrids. As the RHS blog says “Ever tasted a tummelberry or bitten into a boysenberry – or are you mystified by the whole bunch? Our trial aims to untangle this tasty but complicated group of garden fruits. ” The trial finishes this year and the evaluation and results should be available soon.
Many of the new varieties have much larger sweeter berries, often on less vicious and rampant bushes. Much of this breeding programme has been driven by the supermarkets. which seem to believe that blackberries could become as popular as strawberries and blueberries.
This has led to a drive for much larger sweeter fruit, and one new introduction, ‘Driscoll’s Victoria’ seems to have hit the mark. Not only does it have the essential longer shelf life but it is also unusual as it appears to grow better under protection rather than out in the open, which gives a huge advantage to commercial growers. As a result Tesco have just started selling them in snack packs and claim a huge demand.
Tesco’s fruit is grown in Kent by farmer Robert Pascall and he has increased production from 30 tons in 2012, to 180 last year. He told the Telegraph “Finding a larger, sweeter blackberry variety that can be eaten on its own as a dessert or as a snack has long been the Holy Grail for UK berry growers. We’ve been trialling various sweeter varieties for a few years now but none have produced as consistent a taste or size as the ‘Driscoll’s Victoria’ which is already proving to be a game changer for growers like myself.” For more on this story see:
and watch the video on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=renED9vxqOg
And finally, if you’re still confused about the difference between a ‘blackberry’ and a ‘blackberry’ , like the young people in the opening sentence of this post, then take a quick look at this clip…
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