Seduced by a noxious weed: The luscious lure of the blackberry

By Jayson Jacoby August 27, 2010 12:41 pm
’m not sure what to make of the Himalayan blackberry.

Except when I happen to have a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

This temporarily clarifies the situation.

A handful of blackberries, dusted with a skim of sugar and gently bruised with the back of a spoon to release their pungent juice, can transform a scoop of soft serve into a dessert that’s positively ambrosial.

My predicament, though, has nothing to do with the various culinary uses of the blackberry. These, ranging from cobblers to jams to munching them fresh-plucked, are pretty much above reproach.

What I can’t figure out is whether, speaking ecologically rather than gastronomically, I’m for the fruit or against it.

The thing is, the Himalayan (also known as the Armenian) blackberry, according to biologists, is a noxious weed.

And we’re supposed to abhor those.

Noxious weeds can have such ruinous effects on our native flora and fauna, in fact, that even committed environmentalists will occasionally endorse the spraying of chemical pesticides to prevent the spread of particularly pestiferous types.

Although our harsh Baker County climate has denied this invasive blackberry a significant roothold here, the more benevolent conditions west of the Cascades have allowed the plant, which was first noted in Marion County in 1922, to exemplify the prolific tendency of weeds.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture minces no words in its description, calling the blackberry “the most widespread and economically disruptive of all the noxious weeds in western Oregon.”

With the possible exception of downtown Portland, it’s a challenge to find any place in the Willamette Valley from which you can’t see a blackberry bush.

(And even amid the concrete canyons I wouldn’t be shocked to find a spiny cane, jutting from a crack in the asphalt of a grimy alley.)

The creeping vines dangle over the gravel shoulders of most rural roads.

If you abandon a car in the valley it’s a virtual certainty that, within a year or two, blackberries will wrap round the engine block and thrust leaders through the gaps in the hood.

In untrammeled areas blackberries form virtually impenetrable thickets that sprawl across many acres.

I wouldn’t venture into one of those prickly labyrinths unless I was wearing a full leather body suit.

And even then the brambles would go for the eyeholes.

Yet despite their pervasiveness, I find it hard going to brand blackberries with the same libelous language used to malign other weeds.

The very name Dalmatian toadflax, for instance, exudes malignancy.

And leafy spurge, purple loosestrife and Dyer’s woad sound like vegetation I don’t want growing on my property.

(Or mixed in with my ice cream.)

But blackberry seems to me to carry a pleasant connotation.

This has much to do with my childhood.

My maternal grandparents owned a couple of acres in Stayton, and along one side of their property runs an irrigation ditch.

A tangle of blackberry bushes, in some places 10 feet high, paralleled a reach of the ditch (and still does, more than likely, given the tenacity of the blackberry).

We gathered gallons of berries there, a family tradition established long before I was born.

Even now, a few decades since I was last there, I inevitably think of the place whenever I eat blackberries. I remember those warm days toward the end of summer, the sky a gunmetal gray and the air acrid from the smoke of grass seed stubble fields afire.

My reminiscing is especially poignant, though, when I’m actually picking blackberries. This happens most every August, and just a couple hundred feet from my parents’ home in the South Salem hills.

Their neighborhood is solidly upper-middle-class. Yet even there, where the underground sprinkler system is ubiquitous and the uncouth dandelion is attacked with extreme prejudice, the Himalayan blackberry thrives on almost every vestige of untended land.

One of which is the shallow defile that lies between the street that runs just below my parents’ place, and the pastoral spread of Belcrest Cemetery near to the north.

The blackberries mingle in this ravine with 80-foot Douglas-firs and an occasional oak — the classic semi-urban forest of Western Oregon, where deer live and where raccoons rest between plundering backyards for their rich fodder of dog food and fat koi in decorative ponds.

Anyway, you can gather a couple quarts of ripe blackberries here without straying more than 10 feet from the blacktop. The task requires half an hour and maybe a handful of shallow scratches across the arms.

I gladly endure the minor sting that results in exchange for the pure joy of biting down on a sun-warmed blackberry which has reached its sweet apex of ripeness.

This experience is, in its way, the ultimate guilty pleasure.

The guilt, of course, arises from the wretched reputation of the plant.

I feel that my duty, as a native Oregonian with an affinity for the state’s native species and its cultivated crops, requires that if I am to have anything to do with blackberries it ought to be hacking them with a machete rather than harvesting their tongue-pleasing bounty.

And yet, while that juice is trickling down my throat, its flavor unmatched by anything confined in a bottle, I simply can’t muster the fortitude necessary to apply the word “noxious” to the experience.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.