Whether you were a city or a country kid, I suspect that one plant experience unites us all – we have probably all foraged for blackberries at some point in our lives. The berry bearing bramble (Rubus fructicosus), is one of the great opportunists of the plant world. It can take hold in the most unlikely of places; and is as ‘happy’ scrambling through fences and wasteland as it is in hedgerows and woods. It is mostly chased out of all but the wildest of gardens though, but perhaps it is time to reassess this.
Abundant in nature
Tudor writers mention both blackberries and their close relation the raspberry, but to them, the raspberry is a garden plant, whereas the blackberry never is – why would you need to when it is so abundant in the wild? It is native to much of the northern hemisphere and has featured as a part of our diet from the earliest hunter gatherers onwards. Perhaps due to its ubiquity there was historically not much effort made in breeding or cultivating the plant in the garden. However, since the 1980s plant breeders have created varieties of blackberry with much larger fruits and most importantly, thornless canes. These are well worth bringing into the garden as they are high yielding, reliable and will not shred your hands and clothes when trying to pick them.
Training and trickery
When looking at a thicket of wild bramble, it’s hard to decipher any pattern to the growth, but knowing their growth habit helps when growing them in the garden. It is a perennial plant, which sends out long stems in its first year. These will root if allowed to touch the ground. The following year, these long stems will send out short flowering branches which will bear the fruit. At the same time, it will be growing new first year stems ready for the year after. The trick is to keep separate the one year and 2 year old stems so you can easily cut out the old ones after they have fruited and tie in the new ones in their place. At Hampton Court, we planted ours along a fence, about 2 metres apart. All new shoots in one year were tied in to the left, then the following year they were trained to the right so we could easily see which ones to cut in any given year. In the winter, after cutting out the old stems, we re-tied in all the new growth in undulating waves – this promoted greater fruiting along the length of the stem.
Extend the harvest
Many cultivars are now available, but pay attention to their ultimate size and to the harvest season when choosing. Some can be planted as close as 1m apart, others recommend 3m spacings. If you only have room for one plant, choose a cultivar which produces over a long season, such as ‘Chester’. Most cultivars will produce over a 3-4 week period so by careful selection, 3 plants could see you through from July to late September. Be aware of the folklore though that you should never pick blackberries after the 11th October as this was the date when the devil was thrown out of heaven – he landed on a bramble and in spite, spoiled the all the fruit from that date on.
Jams, desserts and liqueur
Using the fruit for jams and crumbles is a given, but here’s an alternative suggestion for an autumn glut. The liqueurs Creme de Mure and Chambord both feature blackberries as ingredients and it is very possible to make your own versions at home. Simply by steeping the fruit in spirit for a few weeks will impart the flavour and then you can add sugar to taste – as blackberries can vary with their sugar content I prefer to do this at the end. On its own, I don’t find it that strong as a flavour, but try adding cinnamon stems, vanilla pods, cloves, citrus peel or star anise to bring out the warmth of the berries.