They’re harder to find, but worth the search.
If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you’re pretty much required to like blackberries. They’re everywhere in late summer (or, this hot year, earlier). The crazily tangled, dense vines grow at a mad pace on any abandoned patch of land, also making concerted efforts to take over yards, parks, even buildings.
The plant itself — the Himalayan blackberry — was introduced optimistically back in the day by the otherwise sensible Luther Burbank. Turns out it’s invasive, reproducing through multiple and nefarious means: The canes sprout and arch, spawning “daughter canes” just by touching the ground, while roots send out “adventitious shoots,” also known as suckers. Gardening books use euphemisms like “prodigious” and “extremely vigorous.” A cane can grow more than 20 feet in a year.
Himalayan blackberry canes are, of course, covered in sharp thorns (the plant is in the rose family). Burning them only deals with what’s above ground; they’ll come back. The berries are so seedy that loving them seems like a special Northwest version of making lemons into lemonade, except that lemon trees don’t try to take over the world.
But there’s a better blackberry. It’s a native plant — Rubus ursinus, a name that conjures up images of happy bears eating berries in the sun. It’s known as the trailing blackberry, the wild mountain blackberry, the Pacific blackberry or the Northwest dewberry.
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It doesn’t nightmarishly tangle and sprawl, just gently trails along the ground. The berries are more delicate and tender, smaller and sweeter, but still tart; they taste like the bullying variety of blackberry finally got schooled by a raspberry. They’re not that ostentatious shiny black, and they have much smaller, less teeth-sticking-in seeds. The juice runs blood red. They ripen earlier, as in now, but the season lasts only a month or so.
If you’ve never heard of the native trailing blackberry, you’re not alone. Some say our islands are the best spots to find them. Others say the trailing blackberry likes to grow in places that have been recently logged or burned. People say to look near Black Diamond, or in Whatcom County, or along the coast. Those who know where to pick guard their secret closely, and there’s a pervasive worry that they’re getting harder to find.
Chris Curtis, the executive director of Seattle’s farmers markets, grew up in the Skagit Valley, where her mom got the berries from generous neighbors and made “killer blackberry pie” with “the best flavor ever.” Himalayans, she says, are “soft and bland, and have no natural pectin, so don’t hold up in baking or preserves very well.” She’s never seen the native berries for sale at farmers markets, “not even from our wild and foraged vendors.”
However, you might find trailing blackberries on the dessert menu of the Dahlia Lounge or Copperleaf Restaurant — local edible treasure-hunters Foraged & Found only sell trailing blackberries wholesale, to these two and a handful of others.
Owner Jeremy Faber is personally a big fan. He asserts that “Himalayan are crap — not worth eating at all, comparatively.” He alone offers encouragement to would-be pickers, saying the berries “grow all over the place in this state.” But, then, he’s a professional forager.
James Miller, the owner of stellar Ballard bakery Cafe Besalu, picks in spots he doesn’t care to get too specific about, “around Carnation or Duvall.” He likes “the intense flavor” of the trailing blackberry, and uses them in tarts, pancakes or coffee cake, or to make jelly or a syrup for a cocktail.
Matt Bumpas, former pastry chef at the excellent Capitol Hill restaurant Poppy, also prizes the berries for their “intense berry flavor.” At Poppy, he bought them from Foraged & Found to make a vibrant red granita to go with apricot camomile sorbet. Now making desserts as SweetBumpas, he was sorely disappointed in the “overwhelmingly sour” regular blackberries he sourced for ice cream recently. “In the berry world, I guess bigger is not necessarily better,” he says.
If setting out to pick berries you’ve never seen before from an elusive, unfamiliar vine is off-putting, but you happen to have a patch of land, you can always grow your own. Las Pilitas Nursery in California has mail-order Rubus ursinus starts; gardening expert Ciscoe Morris advises calling the Miller horticultural library at the UW for tips.
And, of course, you truly can get anything on Amazon.com, including trailing blackberries, frozen for $69.99 a gallon. But if you go directly to their source — Northwest Wildfoods, nwwildfoods.com — it’s a better deal, three pounds for $39.99, with serving suggestions, recipes and lovingly detailed information included.
James Beard, according to Northwest Wildfoods, called the trailing blackberry “the uncrowned king of all wild berries.” And they can be yours, no driving, scratches or sunburn required.