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Scratches below the surface: 13 views of the prickly, noble blackberry

Much of my weekend was spent elbow-deep in thorns.

We went blackberry picking. The result: a cobbler, smoothies and fresh berries on cereal, a quart to the neighbors, and bags full in the freezer. This compares to 2012, when lazy me picked zero berries.

So we are well-stocked for the fall and winter. Though the picking season is nearly finished, there are still so many ways to look at the blackberry. It brought to mind Wallace Stevens’ poem “13 Ways of Looking at A Blackbird,” and its lines:

“I know noble accent

And lucid, inescapable rhythms,

But I know, too

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.”

Blackberries have their own lucid, inescapable rhythms.

  1. Much effort in blackberry picking is devoted to the gentle maneuvering of thorn-line vine one does in self-defense to reduce the puncturing that goes with the territory. So … A picking tip: rather than trying to pinch the stalk between sharp thorns, move them by grabbing the leaves and pulling, for the leaves are without thorns — and tough.

  2. We devoted blackberry pickers are a little like fishing folk: Please don’t ask us to divulge prime patches and favorite fishing holes. But I am looking forward to catching up with my friend Mark Hansen, who is also an aficionado.

  3. The blackberry cobbler made by my wife, Lorre, awaits me after I write this column.

  4. I have never used a capital-B BlackBerry.

  5. A reliable recipe for blackberry wine: four quarts fruit, three quarts water, two cups of sugar (courtesy of my wine-making expert brother, Joel, who has made plenty of batches of the stuff).

  6. My mother’s blackberry jam was a breakfast staple when I was growing up. The recipe was similar to that of number 5. I did not appreciate, in those hot August days, the sweat and time that she put into steaming the jars, milling the berries, and concocting the molten purple nectar that in February would taste so incredible on toast.

  7. Slackwater Beach in Hood River (see photo) is lined with tall patches of brambles on its banks. But the fruit rots on the vines; I think the paddlers and surfers are focused on matters other than harvesting. But perhaps the berries are left because of other, unappetizing, things that line the banks. Ask people who own dogs.

  8. If you live with someone who smokes, eat blackberries. They are high in ellagic acid, which is an antioxidant that acts as a scavenger to help make potential cancer-causing chemicals inactive. Ellagic acid reduced the genetic damage caused by carcinogens like tobacco smoke and air pollution. They also contain other antioxidants that help lower cholesterol and ward off cardiovascular disease.

  9. Blackberries are also known as dewberries.

  10. Worldwide, there are more than 2,000 varieties of rubus fruticosus.

  11. My friend Jeff, who works for an irrigation district, told me he eats one blackberry a year. One.

“I like them but I can’t encourage them by enjoying them,” he quipped, because a large part of his job is devoted to eradicating the blackberry.

And so to ways 12 and 13.

  1. In the U.S. Oregon is the leading commercial blackberry producer, at 53.5 million pounds in 2011.

  2. “Himalayan blackberry control is a major problem,” says OSU Extension Service. “Himalayan blackberry (Rusu armeniacus) is a European shrub that was introduced in the United States as a crop in the late 19th century. It escaped cultivation and has since invaded a variety of sites, including low-elevation streamside areas through the Northwest.

“Listed as a noxious weed in Oregon, Himalayan blackberry rapidly occupied disturbed areas, is very difficult to eradicate once establishes, and tends to out-compete native streamside vegetation.”

That said, a plump Himalayan picked at its peak is in a class by itself: a round, rich flavor distinct from the smaller, perfumey trailing, blackberry — also a unique treat. Smaller still, black caps are good for browsing while hiking, but too inconsistent to warrant the time it takes to pick them.

Don’t get me started on blackberry’s cousins, the raspberry, which I cannot abide. (I know. But I feel the same way about apricots, too.) On the other hand, the rich uncle to the Himalayans is the thimble-sized Marionberry, firm jewels that are, along with salmon, hazelnuts, Multnomah Falls, Bill Schonely and Timberline Lodge, noble accents that define Oregon.

The blackberry is involved in what I know; I have the scratches to prove it.

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