If my backyard patch is any indication, the wild blackberry season is coming to an end—a week or so earlier than normal. The wild creatures already know that the berry feast is almost over. Two sets of triplets now regularly raid my berries. One comes in the form of fawns, silently slipping out of the darkening woods and across the backyard under the guidance of mom. The other comes in the form of my neighbor’s three sons (not actually triplets). When the blackberry craving strikes them, they set down their lacrosse sticks, make a temporary truce, and comb their way around the perimeter of the patch.
It’s been a banner year for blackberries. It seems they like hot, dry weather. Although a bit small this year, what the berries lack in size, they make up for with abundance. Every cane in my patch bends over further each day as the ripening berries weigh them down. Catbirds, cardinals, blue jays, robins, even flickers flutter from cane to cane to lighten their load.
If you’ve not picked blackberries before, you’ll soon discover that sweetness comes only to the palate of the picker who has a discerning eye and a knowledgeable touch. Pick a few days early and their tartness can curl your tongue. Pick a few days late and their musty sourness can trigger your yuck reflex.
Since blackberries don’t ripen after picking, choosing ripe berries is important. Color signals the eye when to pause at a berry but not necessarily when to pick it. Those with an untrained eye may yank off any and all berries that have turned black. Those with a trained eye can recognize when a berry should be gently touched to determine if it’s truly ready for picking—and eating. The trained eye looks for swollen drupelets—the 60 to 100 tiny berries that make up a blackberry. When these appear swollen—becoming almost hemispheric–reach out and lightly squeeze the berry; if it’s a bit spongy or soft, pick it. If it’s hard, wait another day. If some of the drupelets burst and spill a little juice, the berry is a tad past prime but ready for quick consumption. If it’s been warmed by the sun, pick it and eat it immediately, crushing it with your tongue to squish out the warm sweet juices into your mouth. You have just achieved blackberry nirvana.
Blackberry patches favor the borders of fields and roadsides that open to full sun. In a normal year, they yield fruit from early August to sometimes late August. Like many fruits this summer, they are early. If you want to get in some late picking, now’s the time to find a patch. And bring a few band-aids in case your enthusiasm takes you too far into the briar patch.
Story and photos by Derek Doeffinger