Blackberry bushes are widely distributed in the wild throughout our territory. They are perennial wild plants capable of spreading with great ease. At the same time, they are difficult to eradicate, making them considered as weeds. However, their fruits are delicious, and they begin to ripen in the height of summer. In many Italian regions, they are cultivated, favoring sweeter varieties, particularly those without thorns.
Let’s learn more about this plant in its wild state. Additionally, we’ll explore under what conditions its cultivation is beneficial, both for large-scale production and in a domestic setting, perhaps for protection and boundary demarcation.
Blackberry Bush, Botanical Description
The blackberry bush belongs to the Rosaceae family. In the wild, the two most common species in Europe are Rubus ulmifolius and Rubus fruticosus.
Spiny Shoots and Blackberry Leaves
The plant is perennial with a jagged and bushy habit. It doesn’t have proper stems but numerous canes that can reach up to 10 meters in length. These canes are characterized by their pentagonal cross-section, extreme resilience, and full covering of thorns.
Another notable feature of blackberry bushes is that they are semi-deciduous, meaning they only lose part of their foliage during winter, while a substantial portion remains. The small leaves are irregularly distributed on the canes. They are pinnately compound, serrated at the edges, and green. Typically, they have an elliptical shape with an acute tip. The upper surface of the leaf is smooth, while the lower surface is covered in white hairs.
The flowers of the blackberry bush, quite beautiful, can be white or pink. They are simple, composed of five petals and five sepals, and are grouped in terminal inflorescences at the apex of the canes. Their shape is pyramidal.
The flower size is not excessive, ranging from 10 to 15 mm. They bloom from late spring to early summer, typically in the month of June.
The blackberry bush’s flowering is highly favored by beekeepers (and naturally by bees) due to the abundant supply of nectar. In Italy, as well as in Spain, the hedges of blackberry bushes are used to produce monofloral honey.
Blackberries are exquisite and unique fruits. They are quite similar to mulberries, but they should not be confused.
On the plant, the fruit appears as a tiny drupe that gradually changes color. It starts as green, then the berries turn red and finally a deep black. Each plant produces a multitude of drupes.
In Italy, full ripening usually occurs from August onwards and continues until September. However, ongoing climate changes are significantly advancing these ripening times. It is now common to find many blackberry bushes laden with ripe fruits in July.
Blackberries are classified as berries, similar to raspberries, strawberries, currants, gooseberries, and blueberries.
Propagation of Blackberry Bushes
Among wild plants, blackberry bushes are among the most persistent and easily propagated.
This is why they are considered weeds that spread rapidly and are difficult to eliminate. Reproduction occurs through seed dispersal, as well as through two vegetative methods. The first is the natural emission of new root shoots. The second occurs when one of the long canes rests on the ground; at that point, it emits new roots along the branch, establishes itself, and continues to propagate.
Habitat of Blackberry Bushes
Blackberry bushes prefer the edges of forests; you may have encountered them during a hike or while mushroom hunting. They are also found in abandoned lands or areas previously affected by fires. This plant thrives in sunny and well-lit locations. It’s unlikely to find a blackberry bush deep within a forest.
In a short amount of time, blackberry bushes can create a dense and impenetrable hedge. Thanks to their sharp thorns, they can keep large mammals, including humans, at bay.
This characteristic, which is now considered a significant issue, was once exploited in rural areas to mark property boundaries and provide protection. It also helped control soil erosion. For example, a hillside covered with blackberry bushes would likely be resistant to landslides.
Today, the challenge is more about how to clear land infested with blackberry bushes. A simple cut or using fire (which actually aids their expansion) is not sufficient. A more effective method involves deep excavation of the soil to eliminate the extensive root system. This operation should be carried out after thorough cleaning.
However, given that blackberries are precious, their cultivation for productive and commercial purposes has been resumed in many regions of Italy. We’ll discuss this further in the next section. In other cases, there is a growing appreciation for the value of wild plants. Blackberry bushes are often left on the ground to take advantage of not only their fruits but also their protective capabilities. In this scenario, the strategy involves periodic pruning to control bush expansion.
Cultivating Blackberry Bushes
Preferred Varieties for Cultivation
The Italian regions where blackberry bushes are cultivated are mainly Trentino Alto Adige, parts of Cuneo, rural areas of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, and the provinces of Forlì and Cesena.
The varieties used for cultivation are not wild ones. Varieties without thorns have been selected to increase production and facilitate harvesting and pruning. These varieties have the advantage of having a semi-erect growth habit.
These thornless varieties are all of American origin and include:
- Black Satin
- Dirksen Thornless
- Hull Thornless
- Lock Ness
All these varieties ensure abundant fruiting, large fruit size, absence of thorns, and semi-erect growth habit. However, compared to the strong resilience of wild blackberries, cultivated varieties are more delicate. They require more care and are susceptible to fungal diseases such as downy mildew and botrytis. They also need adequate watering during periods of extended drought and may suffer from climate fluctuations, particularly late frosts.
These cultivated varieties, like the wild ones, can adapt to poor soils. However, they generally prefer deep, slightly acidic, low-limestone, organic-rich, fresh, and permeable soils.
Harvesting and Cultural Practices
To facilitate harvesting and cultivation, blackberry bushes require support systems. These consist of large wooden poles with attached and stretched wires at varying heights. This allows the plant to grow upright and orderly as it progresses in its growth.
The best time for planting a blackberry cultivation is in the autumn, when the plants are in their vegetative rest period. Bare-root plants can be purchased from nurseries and planted at a shallow depth. However, the soil should be properly prepared beforehand.
If you already have a plantation and want to expand it, you can take shoots from existing plants to increase the cultivated area. In rarer cases, planting can be done in spring months using seedlings with soil clumps.
Properties and Uses of Blackberries
Blackberries have excellent nutritional properties.
They are low in calories, containing only 36 kcal per 100 g, but are rich in sugars, fiber, and minerals (sodium, calcium, potassium, iron). The fruit is also rich in vitamins, particularly vitamin C and vitamin A.
In the realm of herbalism, they are known for their astringent and laxative properties, making them suitable for individuals with intestinal issues.
One drawback of these fruits is their delicacy; they need to be consumed fresh immediately after harvesting and are not suitable for extended preservation. This has led to their predominant use in processing. They are used to produce delicious blackberry jams, preserves, yogurts, tarts, ice creams, syrups, and liqueurs.
During the harvesting period, we will delve deeper into making blackberry jam.
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences (MDPI): “Blackberries and Mulberries: Berries with Significant Health-Promoting Properties”: Discusses the health-promoting properties of blackberries and mulberries, emphasizing their antimicrobial properties.
- Sustainability (MDPI): “Investigation on high-value bioactive compounds and antioxidant properties of blackberries and their fractions obtained by home-scale juice processing”: Study on the antioxidant properties of blackberries and the bioactive compounds present in them.
- Drying Technology (Taylor & Francis): “Physical and functional properties of freeze-and spray-dried blackberry powders”: Analyzes the physicochemical properties of dried blackberry powders.
- Scientia Horticulturae (Elsevier): “Antioxidant properties of blackberries and blueberry fruits grown in the Black Sea Region of Turkey”: Study on the antioxidant properties of blackberries and blueberries from the Black Sea Region.
- Drying Technology (Taylor & Francis): “Effects of spray-drying conditions on the physicochemical properties of blackberry powder”: Research on the effects of spray-drying conditions on the properties of blackberry powder.
- Journal of Medicinal Food (Liebert Pub): “Characterization of blackberry extract and its antiproliferative and anti-inflammatory properties”: Discusses the potential therapeutic properties of blackberries, focusing on their antiproliferative and anti-inflammatory effects.
- Journal of Food Science and Technology (Ifst): “Influence of carrier agents on the physicochemical properties of blackberry powder produced by spray drying”: Study on the influence of carrier agents on the properties of spray-dried blackberry powder.
- Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (ACS Publications): “Influence of Cultivar, Maturity, and Sampling on Blackberry (Rubus L. Hybrids) Anthocyanins, Polyphenolics, and Antioxidant Properties”: Research on the influence of various factors on the antioxidant properties and anthocyanin content of blackberries.
- Journal of Food Composition and Analysis (Elsevier): “Anthocyanin content, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties of blackberry and raspberry fruits”: Study on the health benefits of blackberries and raspberries, focusing on their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties.
- Food and Chemical Toxicology (Elsevier): “A comprehensive study of anthocyanin-containing extracts from selected blackberry cultivars: Extraction methods, stability, anticancer properties, and mechanisms”: Comprehensive research on the extraction methods, stability, and anticancer properties of anthocyanin-containing blackberry extracts.