Behold the wild blackberry: the sweet, thorny weed


Black raspberries. Photo: Alina Zienowicz

It's almost berry time here in farthest northern Illinois.

The wild blackberry is a tasty, nutritious, spreading plant that's hard to eradicate. And it has thorns.

Wild blackberries get little respect among the agricultural. When I asked some Winnebago County Master Gardeners in Rockford about wild blackberry cultivation, they responded, "Can't you just cut them down?"

An Illinois Extension article says "Make the most of berry season,"  gushing about "those first few farmers markets near the end of May and early June where berries are likely available." But the article makes nothing of wild berries, which are free and possibly organic.

The University of Illinois Extension simply advises blackberry gardeners, "Look for the variety 'Illini Hardy.' Destroy any wild brambles, as they harbor pests and diseases that attacks blackberry." As if wild brambles are not blackberries too. Me, I don't have any blackberries that I need to protect from blackberries.

But... maybe those aren't really blackberries bordering my yard and along the road. In our area, the wild black raspberry is much more common. And it's even sweeter and more nutritious. Unlike a blackberry, the white cone (or receptacle) of a raspberry is left behind on the stem after you pick it. So, unlike blackberries and mulberries, a black raspberry is hollow. It's also shorter and rounder, rather than oblong. When black and ripe, the soft fruits look cloudy, with tiny hairs. But it also has thorns.

If you discuss the subject among the agriculturally knowledgeable in America, you may want to note that though the fruits are called blackberries, the plants are called brambles. The English call the fruits "bramble" too and have had an ambivalent relationship with the plant ever since their pre-Roman ancestors kept catching their animal-skin clothing on the thorns while gathering the fruit. In England today, some people make "bramble jam" while others eradicate brambles with triclopyr.

Pruning grapes and berries makes them more productive, and that seems to go for wild blackberries and raspberries as well. The Illinois Extension advises pruning in winter. You might want gloves and long sleeves before making an excursion deep into a bramble. But, unlike wild mushrooms, you can eat them confidently because there are no poisonous berries that look like them.

A version of this story was first published on July 6, 2021.

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