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Wild Blackberries

Late summer is peak harvest season on PEI – not only for crops and gardens, but also for wild foods. It’s a banner year for our Island’s native fruit, so I’ll look at a couple of my favourites this week, starting with Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis, Photo 1).

Photo 1: Wild Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) on PEI.

Blackberries are members of the Rose Family (Rosaceae), a group that gives us many familiar edible species, both native and non: Apples, Cherries, Hawthornes, Plums, Pears, Raspberries, Roses, Strawberries and even Almonds are all in this family. Blackberries are notoriously difficult to identify to species because they readily hybridize, producing plants that can have characteristics of both parents. PEI has at least four native species of Blackberries, but identification to that level isn’t necessary. What we call a Blackberry isn’t a single berry but an aggregate fruit, each one made up of multiple small fruits called druplets (Photo 2). All PEI’s aggregate fruits – Blackberry, Raspberry, Dewberry, and Bakeapple – are edible, so it’s not essential that you are able to identify the individual species.

Photo 2: Each Blackberry is an aggregate fruit, made up of many small fruits called druplets. All aggregate fruit on PEI - Blackberries, Raspberries, Dewberries, and Bakeapples - are edible.

Although it’s not known from PEI, Black Raspberry is present on the mainland; its fruit is black but hollow when picked (like Raspberries) rather than with a solid core like Blackberries. Blackberries’ willingness to hybridize has led to commercial crosses with Raspberries, resulting in Boysenberries, Loganberries, and Tayberries. Our native Blackberries’ canes and leaves often have stiff prickles that can be aggressive enough to deter all but the most determined forager, but there are many domestic thornless varieties you can cultivate if you prefer.

Blackberries have been used for thousands of years and remain popular today. They’re high in Vitamins C, K, and E as well as manganese, fibre, and anthocyanins – those deeply-coloured antioxidants that have attracted lots of attention for their health benefits.

While I’m sure most readers have eaten Blackberries in one form or another, I’ll bet far fewer have tried the leaves. Blackberry leaves have a long history of use as an enjoyable and therapeutic tea; modern research has found they contain several compounds with proven antioxidant activity. While new leaves are usually collected in spring, older ones can also be gathered at this time of year. Pro tip: the smaller, softer leaves at the tips of the canes will have a nicer flavour and fewer prickles (Photo 3).

Photo 3: Blackberry leaves make a pleasant tea. This time of year, choose the smaller, younger leaves at the tips of the canes.

Blackberry leaves can be simply dried for use or fermented as you would Goldenrod or Fireweed leaves. The simplest fermentation method is to ball the leaves up, place them between two towels, and roll them firmly with a rolling pin to break the leaves and let some juice flow. Then pack those leaves into a sterilized glass jar and let sit in a warm, sunny place for a few weeks. The leaves will darken and their scent will intensify. Once fermented, the leaves can be dried in a dehydrator or oven on low heat and then stored until use. I use 1-2 tsp dried leaves per cup for a pleasant, fruity herbal tea. (Pro tip #2: you can do the same thing with wild Raspberry leaves).

Blackberries are common along trails, woodland edges and openings, and in old fields across PEI. There are abundant patches along the Confederation Trail in Central PEI. We’re at the tail end of the wild Blackberry season, but there is still time to enjoy this tasty part of PEI untamed!

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