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Rubus armeniacus

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by G.E. Mortimore, Alberni Valley Times

Alberni Valley Times (British Columbia)
September 26, 2006 Tuesday
Final Edition

Don't try this at home. One day long ago, the grown-ups turned us kids loose to pick blackberries. As they disappeared indoors to socialize over glasses of home-made wine, I hatched a dumb idea.

"Let's shock 'em by bringing in a giant blackberry, as big as an apple," I suggested. "Get some paper and a jug of water, mush the paper into one big blob, and stick bits of berries on it, so it's like a jumbo berry."

The other kids agreed, I don't know why. The monster berry looked convincing. We lodged it in one of the containers, covered it with a layer of regular berries, and left the full baskets in the kitchen.

Then we went home, each family carrying a share of the harvest.

That was the last we heard. I think I see the reason for the silence.

The fake berry must have been in a basket that stayed with our hosts, the owners of the blackberry thicket.

They had no children. There was nobody to prattle about this badly-planned joke. Our concoction probably squashed down into a pulpy mess. They dismissed it as an overripe harvesting failure, and threw the slurry in the compost.

No adult knew about the plot, which was a real-life kid-conspiracy, not a "conspiracy theory." So the truth never came out.

That tiny event still buzzes in my mind during blackberry season, along with the memory of two different sense-inputs that gave me a sentimental twinge when I made an August return visit to Vancouver Island from a long residence in Toronto.

One sensory kick was the sight of the green mountain-shaded water of Cameron Lake on the road to Port Alberni, a scene that has no counterpart in Ontario.

The other was the lush flavour of blackberries. I never found blackberries in Ontario either. It takes a warmer winter to sustain rubus armeniacus, the broad-leaf kind that prevails in B.C.

Scientists who sort out Latin names have applied that label, because the plant comes from Armenia. The ragged-leaf species, r. laciniatus, grows in some places.

Blame for bringing Eurasian blackberries to western North America is rightly or wrongly assigned to plant-breeding wizard Luther Burbank.

The designer of the disease-resistant Burbank potato had no sense of unintended consequences.

He did not regard himself as a scientist. After he had invented a new kind of vegetable, he always threw away his notes, leaving other horticulturalists at a disadvantage.

However, I don't worry about plant history in blackberry time, which can continue through the first week of October in a year of dry sunny air and damp soil.

St. Mary's Anglican Church, in the rural Victoria suburb of Metchosin, prolongs the season with its Blackberry Festival on September 30; but compulsive calendar-watchers put blackberries out of mind on August 31.

All the more berries for us eccentrics who hate to let go of summer, and continue with our picking under hardship conditions.

The hardship is real. There are no more sweet juicy fruit in plain sight. You have to hunt among clusters of red berries that are never going to ripen, and if you find a likely prospect, it has red grains among the black.

Even in July and August, when normal people do their blackberry-picking, the job calls for courage and careful observation.

The vine throws out fast-growing thorny claws to grab the picker and draw blood as the price for the vitamins it pumps up from muck or gravel.

Nothing seems to bother the blackberry bush - neither soil quality, weather, nor the attacks of harvesters who carve paths with shears.

The blackberry plant flourishes, spreads and adapts. But it changes gear for its own benefit, not for the convenience of humans.

Pickers must find bushes that have absorbed the correct amount of moisture - not too much, which turns the fruit mouldy, and not too little, which converts them into shrivelled blackberry prunes.

After crowds of pickers have stripped the bushes, a smart berry-gleaner seeks out specimens hidden behind the most vicious thorn barriers.

I visited the Metchosin blackberry festival, and found myself sitting at a table beside a woman who took a hostile view of such invasive species as the blackberry and the Scotch broom.

I feel badly about the places where armeniacus has crowded out its tasty cousins, the native trailing blackberry, salmonberry and thimbleberry. I hold anti-invader views myself, but I am ready to yield some virtue to the blackberry vine, which sends its roots as deeply into my personal experience as it does into garden beds and drainpipes.

"Maybe the blackberry is partly a benign invader," I suggested, making small talk with the judgemental woman. "Isn't it a kind of people's food bank?"

No, the blackberry is absolutely not a benign invader, she retorted.

It is a tough, troublesome weed. Blackberry-bashing total war is the only civilized response.

The conversation ended there, as my table companion ate the last piece of her blackberry pie with cream.

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