Growing up in Seattle, summers meant good things: weather warm enough for swimming, time to poke about on foot, and blackberries by the handful.
I gorged on the fruit wherever I wandered. There was never any worry I wouldn’t find them either, because Rubus armeniacus, the Himalayan Blackberry, was everywhere.
Those of us on the Hill who spare thought for plants likely have a complicated relationship with blackberries. As a former arborist, I can say they make working in overgrown areas of the Greater Duwamish hellish. As a gardener, there are few more unwelcome guests. As a human who doesn’t appreciate their skin being perforated and cares deeply for native flora and fauna, I’m increasingly less of a fan. And yet, I love their berries and I frequently have my eye on arcing, sundrenched patches both for birds and fruit.
But let’s back up a moment for the folks that are new to the area or have never considered this: Himalayan (also known as Armenian) Blackberries are an introduced species native to Armenia and Northern Iran. They were brought here for their heavy production of large, delicious berries that spill from hardy, fast growing stalks. Give them a moment anywhere on the Hill and they will take over.
Tasty berries mean birds spread their seeds in riotously purple plasterings. Rhizomatic growth means they can resprout and establish from the smallest of sections of plant, even after being grubbed by heavy equipment.
Unlike some species with unclear origins of introduction, there is someone specific to blame for the thickets of blackberries crowding the lowlands West of the Cascades: Luther Burbank. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because a former boy’s boarding school and now park on Mercer Island was named after him. He was an enthusiastic horticultural experimenter and collector who was famous for introducing dozens of new varieties of plants at the turn of the 20th century. Among them was this blackberry, which came to him in a trade from India, hence the name that has nothing to do with the species’ actual provenance. This thorny, fruit bearing gem grew well in the temperate Pacific Northwest and soon people all across the region were planting them.
Burbank, whose hayday was the 1870s till his death in 1926, was a strange figure. On the one hand he seemed to have been a plant wizard, crafting crosses and developing plants of major significance today. He developed the Burbank Russet Potato as a young man, which has become what we know today as “russets,” the most widely grown variety in the world. Burbank was also a champion of eugenics and author of a book titled “The Training Of The Human Plant,” where he urged society to take his plant breeding experience as a way forward for breeding a “better” human. You know, towards “the master race,” and all that garbage. In case you aren’t familiar with eugenics, he wasn’t just some random oddity in this either, his pals Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were proponents too. Now, let’s get back to the plant (and maybe rename that park).
Himalayan Blackberries grow in sun, shade, wet ground, dry ground, push through cement, go where they like. King County considers it a Class C Noxious Weed, which means its control is recommended but not required by law. The amount of effort it takes to remove established thickets with or without pesticides is tremendous.
Pretty regularly on Pikes/Pines, I suggest we add complexity to our views of nature, particularly when considering introduced plants and animals. We should not allow Rubus armeniacus to take over our lives, because the plants would undoubtedly swallow us up if we sat still long enough. Being a Class C Noxious Weed says it all: manage, but don’t lose your shit over it. If you really want it gone, patience in the form of continual cutting or hired goats will do the trick eventually. Or you could just enjoy the berries and give regular haircuts to keep them at bay. Landscape wise we’re likely stuck with them, and pretending we’re not is akin to pretending there’s some wilderness that was formerly untrammelled by people to get back to.
In acknowledging novel ecosystems in global cities, despite harmful legacies, some appreciation is due. Blackberries are full of vitamin C, half a daily dose in a cup of raw fruit, and are also a great source of antioxidants, manganese, and vitamin k. Need some fiber in your diet? Grab some blackberries while they’re around. While I encourage careful selection of harvest locations, and attentive washing, there is also something magical about having food growing in the midst of urban density without our permission or active stewardship.
Part of the reason Himalayan Blackberries have flourished is because they have no biological controls in our area. No insect, fungus, or disease keeps them at bay. And yet, anecdotally, they are still habitat, even if they do create single species stands, displace riparian habitat, and encourage erosion via shallow roots. Bumblebees and honeybees visit them for nectar. Birds use them as sources of food and shelter in places where lots of other plants would hardly consider growing. This part of the discussion is really about quality of habitat, which is not so falsely binary as “we want them” or “we don’t.” Salmonberries likely wouldn’t grow in that compacted corner of a wrecking yard in Georgetown. So do we appreciate that an Anna’s Hummingbird trumpets his tiny raspings from their canes in such places, or not?
Despite this, we should be careful to avoid lavish appreciation either. Plants are interwoven in our perceptions of place. Plants are culture, and they do not exist in a vacuum. This particular plant overgrows other native species even within its own Rose family and its genus, Rubus. Both Trailing Blackberry, Rubus ursinus, and Salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis, are noteworthy members of Pacific Northwest plant communities who are displaced. Wholehearted approval of this displacement is of course dangerous, it simultaneously approves of the diminishment of indigenous lifeways here to California. Himalayan Blackberries are decidedly violent plants, with crowding canes and bloodletting thorns, a not so subtle symbol for settler-colonial histories.
My flip-flopping towards blackberries comes from a long relationship, seeded by many experiences good and bad. They’ve stained my fingers on hot days by a river. I’ve fallen deep into their tangles and had to claw my way out. This morning I went outside to a nearby briar and harvested a bowl of fruit, enjoying a few taste tests before they hit the bowl, while also hooking myself on thorns. Funnily enough, the term berry is quite specific, and just as the Himalayan moniker is misleading, blackberry fruit are not berries at all. Instead they are actually aggregate fruits made up of multiple “drupelets” with individual seeds.
Does this knowledge make them any less delicious? Let me fill this bowl with the musky, ripe fruit already fragrant in the morning sun, and I’ll get back to you.
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