2012’s little wild  blackberries have been tidbits of heaven

<p>Little wild blackberries are a species of native, trailing vine. They cover many open hillsides here near the mouth of the Columbia. Male and female plants are separate, and biologists note, “it is not uncommon to find large patches of male bushes without any fruit.” The hunt for the fertile girl plants is worth the effort, as this mid-summer treat is among the most delicious taste sensations on the coast.</p><p></p>

    It’s been an exuberant summer for little wild blackberries, nugget-sized explosions of Pacific Coast flavor. Gathered within sound of breaking waves, there’s something of the ornery storm in each one. I can picture fog witches wafting about on moonless nights, picking them for their passion potions.

    The first finishers arrived a month ago, deceptively dark but shy of sugar. A wise old home species, they appreciate the urgency of completely utilizing every halfway decent day here on Bad-Weather Beach. For the past 10 days they’ve mostly been sweet as kisses. Like a high-school romance, the fact the end’s so near makes them all the more delicious.

    In a process reminiscent of the 1960s board game “Operation,” I make my hand small as possible and snake it through gaps in the prickle-covered vines, braced for the electrical shock of them penetrating to a nerve. Accumulating about six at a time makes a mouthful.

    Aside from making certain they’re shiny black with no hint of powdery mold, it’s best not to look too closely. They probably contain “accidental protein” — tiny spiders and worms. Les Stroud, TV’s Survivorman, would be proud.

    “Gathering” is an inaccurate description of my activities, since they never make it home. I come back to the house looking like I just voted in an Arab election, right thumb and fingers dyed bright reddish purple.

    A fellow Washington columnist has noted, “Seeking out Little Wild blackberries may not equal the quest for the Golden Fleece but it comes close.” You know you have a true friend if they drop a clue about their berry-picking patch.

          

    Like most members of the rose family, blackberries are a promiscuous bunch, mixing genes together with abandon. This makes it a little challenging to define exactly what’s what. Our little wild blackberries, also sometimes called western dewberries, are labeled with the scientific name Rubus ursinus — meaning blackberry of the bears. They were first scientifically described by famed Scottish biologist David Douglas, perhaps in Pacific County in April 1825 after his eight-month voyage from England in the William and Ann.

    Around here, the other species we encounter are Rubus laciniatus and Rubus armeniacus, the cutleaf evergreen and the Himalayan blackberries, both invasives introduced by white settlers. These are still weeks away from ripening. A week of rain at the wrong time can mean the difference between barrels of berries and barely enough for a few jars of jelly.

    Newcomers are invariably thinking about the evergreen variety when the topic of wild blackberries comes up. These are the giant fence-devouring brambles bent on world domination. Evergreen berries are three times bigger than little wild ones, and have a third as much flavor. To me, Himalayans have a slightly off-putting chemical taste. But they’re still preferable to salmonberries, Rubus spectabilis, which have by now just about finished fruiting for the year. They ordinarily have a watery, washed-out flavor in keeping with their anemic pink-tinged yellow color.

          

    In fact, it may be their color that elevates blackberries and their cousins from amusing local obsession to actual significance as food. Along with several other berry species, they are a prime source of anthocyanins and other complex chemical compounds.

    Pacific region blackberries and wild black raspberries (Rubus leucodermis) contain up to 589 milligrams of anthocyanin per 100 grams of berries, compared to 320 mg per 100 g for the fabled and expensive acai from Brazil.

    As with all things dietary, different studies say conflicting things, but this intense coloring is thought by many to have beneficial affects on everything from type 2-diabetes to cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

    But the best reasons to go berry picking are flavor, fresh air and exercise. The little black guys also engender feelings of continuity with our region’s first people, who called them klikamuks. There is a coastal Indian tale that they represent the blood drops of a woman who fled up a tree to escape her enraged jealous husband.

    Think of her. Be not jealous of anyone else’s berries but grateful for our own.

    Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.

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