Himalayan Blackberries: Wicked Brambles

Yes, its fruit is delicious, but this invasive blackberry shrub has an attitude problem.

Biking

Most people in the Pacific Northwest love the Himalayan's berries but hate the plant.

Photo by Flickr/Sarah Mirk

Content Tools

“It will completely eat a house, if you let it,” says the receptionist, pausing to let the details sink in. I’ve called a blackberry removal service in Portland, Oregon, eager for horror stories. The receptionist has them. She describes thorn-studded vines reaching 4 inches in diameter, growing under siding, insinuating themselves in electrical wires, cutting off plumbing, and refusing to die. “It’s sweat and tears to get blackberry out,” she laments, “just sweat and tears.”

It’s also futile. In Oregon, the Himalayan blackberry, Rubus armeniacus, is classified as a noxious weed, and there’s almost no chance of eradicating it. The vigorous vines grow 25 feet or more in a single season, swallowing fences and creek beds and filling abandoned lots with thick, thorny thickets that locals tramp through every August and September in pursuit of berries. I have scars from nicking my fingers while reaching for the ripest berry of the bunch, so dark and swollen it glistened like the abdomen of a black widow spider. Like most people in the Pacific Northwest, I love the berries but hate the plant. “It’s highly, highly aggressive,” the receptionist says. “I’ve never come across a client who had a blackberry plant on purpose.”

Blame it on Burbank

The blame for the Himalayan blackberry has traditionally fallen on Luther Burbank, the famed plant wizard who created hybrid novelties like the plumcot (a plum-apricot hybrid) at his experimental nursery in Sebastopol, California. Here’s the standard version of the story: Around 1885, Burbank introduced blackberry seeds from a foreign country and planted them in his test plots. The brambles soon escaped and rampaged up the West Coast from San Francisco to British Columbia.

But Burbank doesn’t deserve all the credit for the berry invasion. Oregon produces 65 percent of blackberries grown in the U.S., a $38 million industry. About half are grown in Marion County alone, in the lush Willamette Valley just south of Portland. The moist spring weather develops plump fruit; the hot, dry summers make the berries sweet and prevent them from molding; and the mild but moist autumns encourage the plants to grow and reproduce via asexual tip layering. It’s the perfect climate for growing berries — or spawning thorny invasives.

Oregon has a native blackberry, too: Rubus ursinus, known as the Pacific, California, or trailing blackberry. Most people agree these berries taste sweeter and more floral and are generally better than Himalayan or commercial cultivars. But in the 1850s, when would-be blackberry growers were settling the Willamette Valley, native berries were too small and soft to be shipped to where the wallets were. Nurserymen began trading species that could produce larger, hardier, money-making berries for markets far afield.

Fifty years before the Himalayan blackberry touched American soil, the cutleaf evergreen blackberry, Rubus laciniatus, arrived from Europe. Growers liked that the berries turned black long before they were ripe, which made them firm for transport, and that the canes produced more fruit than the native cultivars. By the early 1900s, the ‘Oregon Evergreen’ was the most common commercial cultivar. It set the standard for today’s generic blackberry flavor, as well as Oregon’s bramble troubles.

“They’re not uncommon at all. They’re just not as noticeable,” says Chad Finn, research geneticist and small-berry breeder for the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Like Himalayan berries, evergreen blackberries are a pioneer species, moving into disturbed areas wherever tree cover is thin — such as on land affected by a forest fire, landslide, new farm field, or shopping complex. The plant is distinguishable by its unusual five-fingered, toothed leaves. “It has an almost Japanese maple kind of leaf,” says Finn, with a round stem and thorns that curve downward.

Finn’s predecessors at the Agricultural Research Service had realized by 1897 that the evergreen had gone native and formed annoying thickets in pastures, woodlands, and along roadsides. Ominously, that same year, Luther Burbank’s seed catalog offered a new cultivar to gardeners: the ‘Himalaya Giant.’ One plant cost 60 cents, and 10 plants cost just $2.

Burbank had been trying to breed a thornless blackberry. He was convinced that the blackberry’s prickles were all that kept it from enjoying the same popularity and large-scale growing as apples or pears. Early on, he managed to create a thornless, native trailing blackberry, but claimed “they were small and of very indifferent flavor.” He searched for a larger, more productive berry to breed them with, and that’s when he received the infamous packet of seeds.

Productive but Invasive

The Himalayan berry, Burbank wrote years later, is “not like other berries, for it will and does bear four times more weight of fruit per plant than any other berry. Six to eight tons per acre on young fields is a fair crop, but as the plants get older they become almost trees, sometimes producing 100 or 200 feet or more of branches each season, and berries in proportion. The ‘Himalaya’ is a most delicious berry, unsurpassed in quality, and the best keeper and shipper. Is it surprising that it is now known as the most profitable shipping berry?”

To berry growers, the news was like treasure. “Its popularity was so great,” Burbank wrote in a statement that can only make modern Northwest gardeners cringe, “that for several years the plant could not be multiplied fast enough to meet demand.”

Alfred Mitting’s 1914 book, Money in Growing Berries, only encouraged berry gold miners. It explained how an average grower could reap thousands of dollars in profit by planting just 1 acre of ‘Himalaya Giant.’ “I know you cannot invest your money in any business that will give higher, safer, or steadier income than berry growing,” wrote Mitting. “My berry book tells about the wonderful Himalaya Berry, the greatest small fruit ever grown in this country.” Even the USDA recommended ‘Himalaya Giant’ and distributed 200 plants in 1905.

I asked the USDA’s Finn if anyone grows the Himalayan blackberry commercially anymore. “No one,” he says flatly. Himalayan quickly fell out of favor. Its enormous vigor was a burden, and as Burbank guessed, people didn’t like its thorns. “They would turn a mad bull or a scared cat,” a Texan nurseryman complained in 1906. “I sold a few plants, but I have apologized to all who bought them and gave them something else.” Even the berry’s exotic story has come under fire. Research reveals that Burbank’s ‘Himalaya Giant’ is nothing more than a well-documented European blackberry cultivar, ‘Theodore Reimers,’ named for a German gardener in Hamburg.

While all of today’s commercial blackberry cultivars are thornless, or nearly so, few of us know their names. But we’re all too familiar with the Himalayan.


Dealing with the Problem

Battling blackberries on your property? The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that you dig them out. Remove the rhizomes and crowns to a 6-inch depth, and plan to keep on digging as needed for at least a year.


Blackberry Leaf Tea Recipe

When life deals you invasive blackberries, make blackberry leaf tea! Blackberry leaves contain high levels of vitamin C and tannins. A tea brewed from blackberry leaves is traditionally recommended to treat diarrhea. To make, add 2 tablespoons of dried blackberry leaves to a stockpot with 1 quart water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and let sit for 10 minutes before straining. Drink 1/2 cup of warm blackberry tea every 30 minutes until symptoms subside. Make sure to stay hydrated during this time, and if you’re not feeling better in 3 or 4 days, consider visiting your doctor.


Lindsay Gasik is a fruit-hunting geek and horticultural tour guide in Malaysia and Thailand. Follow her at Year of the Durian.