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Her Outdoors: Who charged the blackberries?

Jane Merrick

I feel a bit sorry for the blackberry. Of course, I don’t mean the less hip cousin of the iPhone, but the very very humble berry of late summer. It is one of the easiest fruits to find in British hedgerows and parkland, yet – perhaps because of this ubiquity – they’re not the most glamorous of berries. A bit common, you might say. Perhaps it is because they don’t have the sweetness of the strawberry, or the prickle-free harvesting joy of the raspberry.  Unlike gooseberries, they can overwhelm desserts like fools and tarts, while in a jam they are also a bit domineering.

Yet, when nature is so generous with something, as it is with blackberries, then surely all of these drawbacks are irrelevant. And, thanks to the unremitting hot weather we’ve had this July, they seem to be ripening several weeks earlier than they normally do. And this isn’t just about there being early varieties that crop in July – the blackberry bush at Plot 35a bore fruit in late August last year. This year, it caught me on the hop. I went down Tuesday evening to do some watering and there were dozens of huge blackberries, weighing down each branch.

My camera ran out of battery while I was down there (or maybe it pegged out in the heat) so here is the bush a couple of weeks ago when the berries were not quite ripe:

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Blackberries not quite ripe

When I say I was caught on the hop, I mean this literally: I was wearing flip flops because it was still (in early evening) about 28C yet as I went picking the berries from the bush, and some of the brambles caught my feet. Swearing as I went on, I was still undeterred, because there is something joyous about harvesting berries – even when they are hurting y0u.

I don’t know what my blackberry variety is as it was there when I took on the plot, but it is your basic common very prickly one, with gigantic berries. I cut it back hard in late winter, which helped the regrowth. There must be something about the fact that it is so hostile and brutal to handle that it is also so unfussy. It is so rangy and fast-growing it doesn’t seem to need any help with feeding. I let its branches loll over the compost bin, and when the bindweed came (my plot has a problem with bindweed) I let it stay. Why? Because when I’m harvesting the berries, instead of lifting one of the (prickly) branches to get at them, I can simply use one of the entwining bindweed stems to lift it. Who would have thought this pernicious, invasive perennial weed could have a moment of usefulness?

I got about 4lbs of berries that one evening, and when I went back the next evening I got about 1lb more. I stewed them in a pan with a splash of water and some caster sugar (not too much sugar for this as I didn’t want jam) until the berries are half disintegrated into juice, half in tact, and we’ve been eating the lovely sweet messy stuff all week – with ice cream and on our breakfast cereal.

Earlier this year I planted a second blackberry bush in the shadier end of the plot. It is a thornless variety, known as “Thornless Oregon”, which has ornamental leaves that are almost like Japanese maples. There were no flowers or fruit this year, so I will have to wait until next. But with more blackberries ready to harvest this weekend, we’re not going to be short of this crop.

As my camera failure means I’m short of pictures for this post, here are some flowers that are in bloom at the moment:

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Sedum telephium 'Matrona'

This is Sedum telephium ‘Matrona’ which seems to be well-loved on allotments because it attracts bees and other pollinators like no-one’s business.

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Nasturtium flowers

These are some nasturtiums – the seed packet was merely “mixed” so I cannot tell you what the variety is.

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Allium 'sphaerocephalon'

I adore alliums – the species that covers onion and garlic but so much more. These are Allium ’sphaerocephalon’ which suggests it should have a head like a sphere, but it is more oval.

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