Wild observations

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By Nancy Oakes

esterday, which happened to be June 14th, I picked blackberries in the wood next door. Blackberries are not all made equal, and some varieties that grow in our area produce larger fruit than others. I know this from observation. Some of the berries I picked were about an inch long. I look for the largest fruit, because then my container fills quicker. Large is not the only criteria. I also look for ripe berries, but not too ripe. They should be easily taken from the stem and a nice shiny blue black color.

While picking, look out for a few things. Stinging nettle, also called tread softly, often grows among the blackberry canes and if your hand brushes against this prickly plant, it will hurt.

The spines on the nettle are so tiny, theres no way to remove them.

You just have to wait for the stinging to go away. The best way to spot this plant is to look for the small white flowers. If the flower has become a seed pod, look for that. Stinging nettle has an overall fuzzy appearance, because of the hair-like spines that cover the leaves and stem.

Prickly pear also grows in the same terrain as blackberries. Since this cactus generally grows close to the ground, you are not as likely to touch it with your hands as you would the stinging nettle.

The spines on prickly pear can pierce light-weight shoes such as sneakers, so watch your feet when picking blackberries. Insects, birds, and some other animals beside humans like to eat the blackberry fruit, so watch for berries that have bugs on them or have places where a bird pecked at them.

Right now the berries are so plentiful in the wood, theres enough for all who eat them. Gopher tortoise also eat blackberries, so when I see a tortoise mound and blackberries growing near it, I leave the fruit alone.

No matter how careful I am, I always get stuck on my hands, in particular my fingers, when picking.

The blackberry canes have sharp thorns on their stems, probably as a way to discourage berry pickers.

After all, the plant produces the berries which contain seeds, so that it can produce more plants. If the berry stays on the plant, it eventually drops to the ground where the seeds can grow.

Animals that eat the berries also spread the plant through the seeds in their scat. Blackberry plants grow from underground stems or rhizomes that spread across the ground with roots tapping into the soil all along the stem.

According to my Fieldguide to Wild Herbs, there are over 300 species of blackberry plants. Other names for some of these plants are brambleberry, dewberry and black raspberry. The book says blackberries can be found in fields, by fencerows, railroad tracks and in burned-over areas. I would add logged-over woods where young pines are growing, where other trees produce shady areas and where open places allow adequate sunlight. I found berries all over the wood; the ones growing in shaded areas ripen later, but often the fruit seems larger and sweeter when it grows among bushes and trees.

After I bring the berries home, I wash them to make sure I didnt bring any insects back. I usually put some sugar on the berries to help preserve them, and if Im making a pie, to get the juices flowing. Ive written a whole column devoted to blackberries. They are one of our natural eatable fruits, and they grow in lots of local places.

Until next time, good observing.