Monday, May 26, 2014

Blackberry pie for breakfast?

It's a bumper year for blackberries.

Blackberries grow wild on our property in thorny thickets along pathways around the lake and along the edge of wetlands. Although I love most fruit, blackberries have never excited me.

Until this year.

"Have you tasted the blackberries yet?" I asked my husband after returning home from a walk. "They're so good this year, much juicier and bigger than usual."

All the rain we had in May along with warming weather has provided the plants with ideal growing conditions. In Central Florida, blackberries usually ripen in late May to early June when there many other edibles are also available. Blueberries are still bearing during that period and the limbs of peach, plum and nectarine trees bend heavy with fruit. Although mulberry season is mostly over by the time blackberries are ready to pick, there are still enough mulberries on the trees to add to mix with yogurt or add to a fruit salad. If I had to choose between picking blackberries and any of the other fruits, blackberries would lose.

Peaches,plums and blueberries are also ready to harvest at the same time as blackberries

My mother-in-law felt differently. When we used to live on Cape Cod, she couldn't wait for the seedy berries to ripen so she could make quantities of jelly and tasty pies (her secret: lots of sugar…). While I enjoyed eating her pastries and spreading jam on slices of bread, I never shared her enthusiasm for blackberries. Until this year, my consumption of the normally tart, seedy fruit was limited to a few berries picked while walking around the lake. Even then, my munching was accompanied by muttered grumbles because no matter how well I cover up, I can't seem to pick without staining clothing and scarring skin with splinters and scratches.

Picking blackberries is not exactly my idea of fun.

Blackberry thorns...Ouch!

This year, however, the reward/penalty equation has shifted. For the first time ever, the benefits of picking the wild berries might just outweigh the disadvantages. This year, the fruit growing on our property are sweet, juicy and plump instead of tart, dry and small. As I take walks, I find myself grabbing a handful despite snagging my sleeve on thorns and staining my fingers with sticky purple juice. I've even considered (although I haven't done it yet) going out to pick a bucketful with the intention of making a blackberry pie, sweetened with stevia instead of sugar.

My hesitation lies in the fact that blackberries might just be one of nature's most well-protected foods. On our property, they grow in thickets, a good word to describe the dense mounds of tall, bendy fruit-bearing canes covered with an abundance of sharp thorns. The thorns have no difficulty piercing skin and skewer cloth with ease. As if that wasn't enough, the leaves of wild blackberries have a rough, scratchy underside peppered with what feels like prickly needles. When hands touch leaves, as they inevitably do in the plucking process, tiny splinters work their way under the skin.

Jenny and Toby brave thorns and prickers to pick a couple bowls of blackberries in 2006

Wildlife is also fond of the thorny plants. Rabbits and other small animals take refuge in the brambles while the fruit is an important part of the diet for black bears, raccoons, squirrels and birds. In addition to also eating berries, some birds build nests in the dense thickets while in early spring the white flowers attract nectar-seeking bees, butterflies and moths.

Dense blackberry thickets provide wildlife with food as well as safe nesting and hiding space 

I'm glad our property is dotted with blackberry plants even if I don't take full advantage of the bounty. It's good to know they're there, feeding birds, insects and animals, providing nesting sites and shelter. And who knows, maybe this will be the year when I actually brave the barbs, the stains and shredded clothing to pick a bucketful of berries and make a pie.

Hmm … blackberry pie for breakfast. It does sound tempting!

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