In Woodstock a few years ago, a friend who’d grown up in California came to visit and sighed nostalgically over the blackberry bush at the edge of the woods near our driveway. We loved our blackberries there and I would occasionally do battle with surprisingly aggressive ants to pick a bowlful that I might later combine with a heated-up brownie to make an indulgent dessert.
That was there. Here in the PNW (as it’s called) blackberries are everywhere, a menace, a nuisance, and number one on the hit list of invasive species. Like dandelions and blackbirds and a lot of other things spreading out of control, the Himalayan Blackberry was imported from Europe and introduced here on purpose, in this case in 1885 by legendary botanist Luther Burbank, who also brought us elephant garlic. The Himalayan Blackberry was considered an improvement because the fruit grows bigger and sweeter than it does on regular blackberries like we had in the East. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the blackberries proved hardier than every other native or introduced species, birds ate the berries and spread the seeds in their droppings up and down the West Coast and soon they were completely out of control.
They deserve to be poisoned. At least, that’s how the lawn care people we finally gave in and hired to make the property look vaguely civilized see them. “We’ll spray all through here,” one said of the blackberry bushes bordering our neighbors’ yard, as if it was the most routine thing in the world, which I guess it was to him.
“You mean herbicide?” I asked. When he said yes, I vetoed that idea. “Good luck with that,” his partner told us. But I thought we should at least try to maintain our yard without resorting to carcinogens. We knew lots of people who did. I’ve heard that people hire goats to eat the stuff.
I was wary of them, though. Back in Snohomish, a blackberry bush threw one long branch over my compost pile and when I most carefully moved it, a thorn so small you couldn’t see it embedded itself in the palm of my hand and eventually caused a tiny infection. They grow much bigger thorns too–a friend told us he was permanently scarred from a blackberry bush he’d encountered on a hike. Which confirmed my sense that they were something to fear.
But fear them or not, here they were, crawling across from the opposite side of the fence (poison or no) along our property’s east and south borders, throwing tall canes over the top of our lilacs and strangling them. Whether you hate blackberries or love them, one thing you can’t do around here is ignore them.
So. On a recent trip to Lake Forest Park, I found a pair of leather gardening gloves that actually fit my strange, chunky, short-fingered hands. I grabbed the gloves and was ready for battle. On a sunny day I lured Bill outside to help me with the blackberries by cutting down the high canes I couldn’t reach without a stepladder. He got into it with enthusiasm and soon there were piles of blackberry branches along the fence line where he’d cut them down. I used my gloves to drag them around to the front yard and piled them near the burn pit. Then I used my shortness to duck under the other bushes and cut the blackberries all the way back to the fence.
We both kept at it and soon there was an enormous pile of blackberry branches for me to drag to the burn pit. You might have thought we were done but over the next few days as we walked the yard, we kept finding new places where they were encroaching and we pulled them out or cut them back with fervor. Eventually there were half a dozen huge piles of blackberry branches around the yard near the fire pit. After letting them dry for a few days, I started a fire in the fire pit and began dropping them in.
It took two and a half hours to feed them all into the flames. By the end of it my clothes, my hair, and the entire neighborhood smelled of smoke. But looking around the yard it was oddly satisfying. There had been huge piles of blackberry branches and I’d made them disappear literally into thin air.
The next day I found a new place where blackberry branches were making their way into our yard. I cut them down. And started a new pile.
Image: oatsy40 via Creative Commons
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