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Picking blackberries without bleeding to death

Upper Sandusky, Ohio

Summer has passed but I am still savoring a memory that I did not find a way to write about earlier. Until this year I have not been a real fan of blackberries. The big thornless ones we grow in the garden are only really juicy sweet when they are dead ripe, that is a day after they fall off the vine. Before that, the core inside the berry is rather hard and tasteless. The wild ones that we sometimes pick instead have very little bone but lots of tooth and are often too scrawny to have much taste.

But this year, with abundant rains through May, June and July, the wild blackberries ripened plump and sweet. Only one problem. How do you pick them without bleeding to death?

Carol has stories to tell about picking blackberries. For her family in Kentucky, wild blackberries were a cash crop. Her mother would sally forth into the puckerbrush with her children every summer to pick them by the gallon. They sold the berries along with other produce from garden and orchard at local farm markets. The blackberry money was used to buy new school shoes.

In July and August the interior of a blackberry patch in Kentucky is several degrees hotter than the nether regions of hell. The blackberries are not only guarded by thorns cunningly arrayed on the vines to snag anything that passes within ten feet, but by chiggers and mosquitoes. So despite the heat, mother and children wore long sleeves and heavy clothing and rubbed sulfur on wrists, ankles, and around waists to fend off the bugs. A person must have a great desire for new shoes to endure that experience.

Brought up with a yen for picking wild blackberries, Carol passed the curse on to me and our kids. In the exurban area north of Philadelphia where we lived for a time, there were lots of abandoned fields in the sometimes long process of going from farmland to suburb. This was heaven for blackberries and rich land investors whose money could wait indefinitely for a housing development to come along. The vines would proliferate until trees grew up to shade them out or bulldozers buried them. In picking these berries we learned a law of nature not otherwise committed to the literature. The biggest, most luscious fruits are always five inches farther into the clawing thorns than we could reach.

All of which explains why, as soon as I heard that there was such a thing as thornless blackberries, I bought some plants. But somehow, the berries just don’t taste as good when you can wade into brambles that have no thorns to turn flesh into mincemeat.

So we were back to picking the wild ones this summer. And finally we learned a way to harvest them without any loss of life. Our neighbors figured it out. They were actually intent on harvesting wild elderberries, one of the few brushy plants (along with multflora rose) that will proliferate even in the blackberry and multiflora jungles. Scratching along the edge of one such no man’s land, they could see a cluster of elderberry bushes, loaded with fruit, looming up some thirty feet away in the impenetrable thorns. How to get to them and live to tell about it?

They held a little council of war. Mister had an idea if Missus would go along with it. Okay. Mister went to the barn and got his tractor, the one with the front end loader on it. Missus, with some misgivings, climbed into the loader bucket. Mister raised it slowly and eased the tractor into the gnashing jaws of death. When he got close enough to the elderberry bushes, he lowered Missus to a height still safe from the bristling barbs but within reaching distance of the elderberries. Problem solved. And obviously, this technological advancement would also work very well to get those luscious blackberries that hitherto were just five inches too far away to reach.
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