Sweet and thorny
Blackberries are worth the battle wounds
Along the roadside and in vacant lots, blackberries grow in wild brambles, as prickly and wicked as defensive botanical evolution could possibly have made them. But among their infamous thorns grow legendary fruits, and the blackberry is perhaps nature’s most satirical juxtaposition of blessing and curse, heaven and hell.
We all know the temptation, and we all have been drawn into their thorns, damning the pain and the blood while praising the promise of that far-back cluster of fatties. We reach to get our fingertips upon them, and, at last, worn and beaten, limp away triumphantly with a bucket full of nature’s sweetest wild thing.
With such densities of this pestilent fruit bearer growing wild, it might come as a surprise to some that blackberries are cultivated and farmed.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture even operates ambitious breeding programs across the country that, since the early 1900s, have produced dozens of thornless cultivars and hybrids of the genus Rubus.
Rich Collins grows 2 acres of such easy-to-pick blackberries on his farm just off Interstate 80, 1 mile south of Davis. One variety—the obsidian blackberry—actually is a thorny berry, but the rest are as easy to strip as the smooth branches of a cherry tree.
The obsidian is the first berry to ripen each year, and by Labor Day, Collins was selling the crop at farmers’ markets in Davis. Collins also sells his blackberries in Winters on Sunday, and from Thursday through Sunday at the family’s farm stand on Kidwell Road.
Currently, the black pearl berry is nearing the end of its season, but the triple crown, a breed developed in Maryland and among the most highly regarded, will be ripening soon. The triple crown is a tremendous producer, and Collins says his vines have created “a wall of fruit” that will persist for a full month or more. The Chester blackberry, also a lucrative producer, should arrive when the triple crowns taper out in the early days of August.
The nightfall blackberry “tastes terrible,” Collins says.
“But add a little bit of sugar and the flavor just blows up. It makes the best jam you’ll ever have. It has just unbelievable blackberry flavor.”
Collins experimented several years ago with some 15 varieties of blackberries, most of them from university- and government-breeding programs in Oregon, Arkansas and Maryland. Strictly a farmer of endives at the time, Collins noted how each berry fared in the sweltering summers of the Central Valley. He eliminated most of them and finally planted his land with the best.
After all, not all blackberries like the heat. Berry farmer Larry Glashoff in Fairfield discovered this when his newly planted Loch Ness blackberries ripened last July into sour and awful gobs of mush. He eventually did his homework and discovered that the Loch Ness requires exceptionally cool air (it was developed in Scotland) in order to properly “sugar out,” as berry farmers call the ripening process, and so is best grown in cool, coastal valleys.
Glashoff has since removed the vines and replaced them with triple crowns. He also grows boysenberries, marionberries and raspberries. And all summer at the Sacramento Sunrise market and in Davis on Wednesdays and Fridays, he will be selling his fruits as well as a selection of Glashoff Farms jams and preserves.
Additionally, Glashoff Farms offers a you-pick service on weekend and Monday mornings, where berry lovers can experience a new and phenomenal thing: the rare bliss of pulling off the highway, entering the vines of a berry patch, and walking away with a bucket of fruit but not the faintest scratch of a thorn.