Florida Blackberries

Cultivated blueberries in Florida are receiving their annual abundance of attention. This delicious summer fruit overshadows, often literally, the scrumptious native blackberries that ripen slightly before most of the blueberry crop. It’s not unusual to find blackberries growing amongst the cultivated blueberry bushes, unless fastidious growers have culled them out to protect their customers and employees from being scratched by thorns.

Sadly this year, however, the native blackberries were stunted by the spring drought. Plant failed to thrive and although many made a valiant display of flowers, the fruit succumbed to the dry conditions and withered. Have heart, though, this hearty perennial will wait out the summer, redouble its efforts, and strive for fruit next spring.

The Rubus species of the Rosaceae family are abundant and have a long history as both a food source and a medicinal. Euell Gibbons tells us that fine distinctions between blackberries and dewberries are best left to botanists, and for the rest of us, who are mainly interested in enjoying this plants bounty, it suffices to know that blackberries tend to grow upright and dewberries are trailing vines. I concur. I’m less interested in knowing which is which and more interested in popping the ripe fruit into my mouth.

Native species native include the common R. cuneifolius (sand blackberry), R. argutus (sawtooth blackberry), R. trivialis (southern dewberry), and the less common R. flagellaris (northern dewberry). R. niveus, an escaped cultivar native to Asia, is sometimes found in Miami and Dade County (Wunderlin and Hansen).

Sand Blackberry (Rubus spp.)
Sand Blackberry (Rubus spp.)
Wild blackberries and dewberries can be used interchangeably, although the blackberries are usually plumper and sweeter. They are easy to identify but less so to gather because of the thorns. Wear long sleeves and old clothes as a morning of blackberry gathering will result in scratched arms and torn garments. Look for blackberries along sunny creek banks and streams, on disturbed sites, open fields, and in your own Florida garden! It took several years of fighting with these well-armed “weeds” for me to realize that I might as well let them have some space along the inside garden fence where they get plenty of water and protect the rest of the garden from the irascible bunnies that munch eat our vegetable seedlings and lettuces. Blackberries are hardy and resilient and truly can be found in just about any Florida habitat from deep shade to sunny prairies and fields, and from moist ditches to dry sandhills.

Rubus species are thorny, thicket forming perennials with compound leaves of three to five teardrop to oval-shaped leaflets with toothed margins. The white, five-petaled flowers appear in early to mid-spring and are borne in clusters on terminal branches.

Your choices of how to use these native berries are limited only by your imagination. Juices, jams, pies and cobblers, cordials, and wine are traditional uses for the Rubus berries. You can also add them to lemonade, throw a handful over some vanilla ice cream, toss them into summer salads, or turn them into a marinade or chutney for meat dishes.

Fruit and flower petals are edible with the exception of Rubus occidentalis, which is not native to Florida. The leaves of native Rubus can be used as a pleasant astringent tea and also has medicinal properties. More about that later.

The young shoots of blackberries can be de-thorned, peeled, and then eaten as a novelty or survival food as the preparation is not worth adding this food regularly to one’s diet. And in this case, be sure you know exactly what you are foraging because you are collecting an edible before you can positively identify it.

Nutritionally, blackberry fruit is high in bioflavonoids, antioxidants, fiber, folic acid, and omega-3 fatty acids (seeds). Leaves contain magnesium; calcium; potassium; phosphorus; and vitamins A, B1, and C. The leaves and roots are also high in citric acid, oxalic acid, glucosides, and resins.

Medicinally Rubus species have long been used as astringents, particularly for ailments affecting digestion and elimination. The high level of tannins make blackberry leaf tea an excellent and nearly instantaneous remedy for diarrhea, and a good cure for other damp conditions such as bleeding, postnasal drip, mouth sores. While Rubus leaves have traditionally been used for “women’s complaints,” it wasn’t until the 1940s that researchers discovered an alkaloid in the plant called “framamine” that strengthens and tones the pelvis and uterus.

Native American people used a decoction of the root bark to treat diarrhea and dysentery, while Europeans favored the leaves of their native R. fruticosus for these purposes. Blackberry leaves are cooling, and the root bark is more astringent than the leaves. (Note that overconsumption of blackberry root or leaf tea may cause constipation due to its high tannin levels.)

There are so many wonderful uses for the blackberry from foods and beverages to teas, vinegars, mouthwashes, and skin tonics that perhaps next time you inadvertently get tangled in its briars, you’ll be less frustrated and more appreciative of this native plant’s gifts.

Reference

Wunderlin, R. P., and B. F. Hansen. 2003. Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida. 2nd edition. Gainesville FL: University Press of Florida.

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