On the hottest days of summer in the Kentucky hills we got up early, dressed in pants and long sleeves, donned a hat, and snapped rubber bands around our ankles to keep pesky critters from crawling up our legs. Then we grabbed a bucket, called the dogs, and headed to the blackberry patch.
Blackberries grew wild so there were scattered patches all over the mountain. We wandered the hills from one picking season to the next because we never knew where we might find a new crop or whether the old berry patch would still exist. “Patch” is actually a nice, though not entirely accurate, description of these clusters of sweet, purple berries that grow on thorny briars all tangled up together.
There was a standard warning for berry pickers in those days: if the thorns don’t get you, the chiggers will. The bugs are so tiny they are hard to see with the naked eye unless there’s a meeting of like-minded chiggers, in which case the color of the crowd stands out, creating a moving red blotch on the skin. Invariably, a few always managed to migrate beneath the rubber band and head for more hospitable places. I recall painting my legs with nail polish to seal the bites and “smother” the critters. I can’t imagine that was a good thing, but it seemed to work.
We took the dogs to keep away the snakes. Black snakes, green snakes, and garter snakes were okay; copperheads and cottonmouths and rattlesnakes were not. But to me, a snake was a snake. I couldn’t tell one from the other and didn’t like any of them. And I didn’t trust the dogs to warn us. Half the time they found a place to curl up in the shade of a tall hickory or poplar while we sweated in the sun. It seemed I was always waking up the dogs.
My mom told us to wait and wash the berries before we ate them. “You may eat a spider.” She repeated this often. But I examined the berries closely and ate as I picked. We all did, Mom included. After awhile, the big plump berries were too tempting to resist.
Years later, when my mom was in her eighties, she came to visit one summer and we went berry picking outside the city. The berries had been planted at one of the local farms and were set out in neat rows with freshly mowed “aisles” in between. The new variety of berries were totally thorn-less! No finger pricks, and we didn’t have to worry about chiggers or snakes and could fill our buckets in record time. The berries tasted the same. It was a fun outing. But there was something different that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.
It was the mystery, I think. These citified berry patches were predictable. We knew exactly where they were and how many berries we could find and when they would be perfect for the picking. No guessing. No surprises. No worries. The “wild” had been taken out of the berries and the picking. Sometimes a little bit of “wild” is needed in our day-to-day predictable lives.
Hot Blackberry Jam
Mom made blackberry cobbler, dumplings, and hot jam with biscuits. She canned berries in quart-sized jars for the winter and froze a few in plastic bags. One of my favorites was hot jam with biscuits for breakfast. I often make this for dessert. It’s easy and fast. All you need are fresh blackberries and sugar — lots of sugar. Heat in a sauce pan on low until the berries produce juice that thickens and becomes a heavy syrup. Add a few fresh berries to the jam, stir, and pour over buttered biscuits (homemade biscuits or Bisquick – no canned, refrigerated biscuits, please!)
10 Reasons to Love Blackberries:
1) The antioxidant content of blackberries is far above that of most other foods.
2) The blackberry is technically not just one fruit. Each whole berry consists of 80-100 small drupelets that are arranged in a circular fashion, like a bunch of tiny grapes. Each drupelet has a juicy pulp and a single seed.
3) Blackberries are easy to store – wash and vacuum seal in a Ziploc bag and store in the freezer. They keep for months!
4) They grow easily, even in poor soil, and spread rapidly in woods, hillsides, ditches, and vacant lots — mostly by birds and small mammals that eat the berries, digest, and disperse the seeds at will.
5) Blackberry leaves are food for certain caterpillars, deer, red foxes, badgers, and birds.
6) Blackberries are red before they are ripe, leading to an old expression that “blackberries are red when they’re green.”
7) According to forensic evidence, the Iron Age Haraldskaer Woman ate blackberries 2,500 years ago, so it is reasonable to assume that the berries have been eaten by humans for thousands of years.
8) Mexico is the leading producer of blackberries in the world. Nearly the entire crop is exported into the off-season markets in the US, Canada, and Europe.
9) Blackberries have multiple meanings across religious, ethnic, and mythological realms. They’ve been used in Christian art to symbolize spiritual neglect or ignorance. Mid-Mediterranean folklore claims that Christ’s Crown of Thorns was made of blackberry runners. In one Greek myth, Bellerophon, a mortal, tries to ride Pegasus to Olympus, but he falls and becomes blind and injured upon landing in a thorny berry bush. This is his punishment for trying to take the power of the gods.
10) They taste good!
Did you ever pick wild berries? Have a favorite recipe?