Himalayan Blackberries: Wicked Brambles

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


| Summer 2017



Biking

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

Photo by Flickr/Sarah Mirk

“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.





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