Saturday, February 8, 2014

On the perennially interesting subject of blackberries

The year the 1979-83 drought broke, the blackberries at our place in Canyonleigh fruited for their lives. Blackberry patches that had sat withering through the drought, barely holding the earth together as the wind whipped topsoil from sheep country and dumped it on the Pacific Ocean, sprung up like ... blackberries, I guess ... and bloomed their rosy white blossoms and grew fat lovely berries by the thousand. There were four of us kids. Mum equipped us with two four-litre ice-cream buckets apiece, the old cylindrical ones with a plastic handle, and we filled the lot with berries. It was a one-for-the-bucket, one-for-me arrangement, and still we ended up with about 25 litres of fruit, besides the smudgy purple around our mouths.

That was my formative blackberry moment. Ever since, I've expected blackberries to come in staggering quantity and indecent juiciness. So I was excited the other week when Bek mentioned that she'd stumbled upon a hoard of scrumpy blackberries in Mount Beauty, which is practically nextdoor (30km-ishly) to Bright, current Harlot Family HQ. I already knew about Bright's blackberries, of course. A few years ago, Tim and I had waded down the Ovens River with our pants rolled up, picking blackberries that dangled from the riverbank. Last year, in early March, I'd salvaged the last of the pickings from the pine forest track behind Mum's house. But Bek's enthusiasms triggered memories of the 1984 harvest, so Operation Pick Blackberries in Bright Y2K14 turned into a thing.

At about 7.30 this morning, the Aged Wilbur and I set up the hill behind mum's house. It's about half an hour of zig-zagging up through almost vertical gum forest (pant, pant, pant) until we reach a sort of plateau, and then a dirt track that winds through the pine plantation. The understorey has been colonised by blackberries, which, imho, is to the blackberries' credit. I mean, iknowiknowiknow, invasive weed of national significance and all, but those pine trees really acidify the soil and there aren't many indigenous plants that can cope with such a low pH. Blackberries help hold the soil together, which is no bad thing on a slope like this one. They are the delight of little bluewrens, and (in my unsubstantiated, research-free opinion) they do that  dynamic accumulator thing that makes permaculture people so excited about yarrow and comfrey. I'm convinced they're good eggs. Or possibly I just like the berries and need to come up with a compelling case for why the Department of Primary Industries should not be blasting my berry sources with glyphosate (which they seem not to be doing; good work, DPI).

I filled the better part of a bucket with blackberries, ate quite a few along the way, and fed some to Wilbur. The dog, I should say, has always been a fan of things he can eat. My brother, M, used to chide me for letting fruits and vegetables disappear down the Wilburtian gullet. The gist of these chidings was that fibre led to sloppy dogpoos, and as my brother was for a long time poo-picker-upper-in-chief, fair enough that he should hold strong opinions on the subject. Since M has moved to far north Queensland, where he has bigger anxieties than sloppy dog poo (such as monsoons, cyclones, cane toads the size of camels, tiger snakes in his bed, wild pigs stomping through his agricultural efforts, tropical ulcers, the full Indiana Jones shebang, really), I have resumed my program of supporting Wilbur in his quest for vegetable foods. In this quest he is wildly enthusiastic. Beagles really do know how to put the omni into omnivore, greatly expanding the definition of edible so that it embraces, for instance:

ineffably delicious wombat droppings.

Blackberry pickers should wear fishermen's waders, suits of armour greased with vegetarian lard, and gloves made out of synthetic rhinoceros. Not their favourite short-sleeved cotton shirt. I spent quite a lot of time this morning unpinning myself from the thorny embrace of a blackberry cane, which got me thinking about why blackberries come with prongs. It's a deterrent obviously, to creatures that might otherwise eat the canes, but that means that (to such creatures, at least) the canes must be edible. And possibly even more than edible? Possibly even Quite Nice? I am officially registering here my intention to do some experiments with the edibility of blackberry canes, but I'm going to wait until next Spring, when the canes are green and juicy, not cantankerous and a bit over it all, like they are now.


  1. I too have memories of blackberrying ingrained in my psyche from family holidays, and I particularly remember half swimming, half walking in a creek to blackberry along the riverbanks where all the juiciest berries were. It was ok when the tub (also ice-cream, but this one was 4L) was empty-ish as it just floated along, but when it was fuller it was more of a challenge. I also fully support the 'one for the bucket, one for me' philosophy of berrying.
    The only creature I know of that eats blackberry is goat. Apparently they are very good blackberry removers. Fortunately the DPI hasn't gotten onto them as a control strategy to implement.

  2. Such a blissful way to be a kid.

    I have a terrible feeling that releasing goats into state forests to control the blackberries might backfire terribly. On the other hand: goats! What great creatures they are!