Natural Perspective — In a Jam

Aug. 15, 2018 — For Oregon, the latter half of summer is berry season. Besides cultivated varieties, our area abounds with native species like thimbleberries, salal berries and huckleberries growing wild. All are tasty in their own right, but not quite as well-known as the blackberry, which many folks particularly treasure. Reaching among thorns to pluck berries is not the easiest task, but, for the persistent picker, the reward of a juicy pie or sweet batch of blackberry jam is worth the effort.

While picking wild berries may seem like a back-to-nature experience, the most prominent wild blackberry in our area, the Himalayan blackberry, is actually an invasive introduced species. These berries were brought to the Pacific Northwest from Eurasia over 100 years ago for agriculture, but have since spread well beyond the confines of farms.

Himalayan blackberries sport thick canes that can extend over 20 feet and are covered in large, sharp thorns. Some locations have over 400 canes per square yard. These are the berries commonly seen along edges of roads and fields and, with many large berries dangling near eye-level, they are popular for picking. However, the successful Himalayan blackberries often outcompete native plants — thereby reducing biodiversity. Riverbanks covered in shallow-rooted Himalayan blackberries may be more prone to erosion than banks entwined with the deep roots of native trees, and a particularly timely concern is the fact that dense thickets of dry canes pose fire hazards.

The negative qualities of the Himalayan blackberry led the Oregon Department of Agriculture to list it as a noxious weed that must be controlled or eradicated. However, anyone who has tried to get rid of these berries knows how resilient they are. Roots can reach nearly 3 feet in depth and over 30 feet in length, and plants can regrow from small pieces of roots or stems, making complete eradication unlikely.

Although we may be in a jam with invasive Himalayan blackberries, native berry seekers take heart: Oregon does have a native blackberry. Called the trailing blackberry, its thinner canes creep along the ground and its berries are much smaller than those of the Himalayan, making the native berry more challenging to pick. However, persistent pickers will find sweeter, more flavorful berries. So, if you’re up for a bit of berry picking, try applying the adage of “bigger isn’t always better” and look for the more understated — but more rewarding — trailing blackberry.

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