wild black raspberry

Taming The Wild Black Raspberry

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

When I was young and foolish, I fancied that I would become the raspberry king of the world. The way I figured, raspberries were one crop that would remain the undisputed territory of the small scale operation. Only garden farmers would be crazy enough to want to work that hard. Raspberries don’t lend themselves well to mechanical picking, don’t store well, get lots of diseases and bugs, need hand pruning and weeding, and taste heavenly. Maybe I could get paid enough to make the hard work profitable.

I was mostly right in my thinking except that there are intrepid growers with some fairly large raspberry farms that cater to pick your own customers. And some mechanical harvesting does take place, I understand, with varying results. But hand harvesting is still the better way to insure quality and organic raspberries have maintained astronomical prices in upscale markets. An indignant consumer told me recently that she paid eight dollars for a pint of yellow raspberries. She did not take it kindly when I answered that she got a bargain. Our yellow raspberries are a feast for the gods, but assorted birds, bugs, Japanese beetles and raccoons think so too. If we were going to grow them commercially as I dreamed of in earlier days, we would have to figure out a way to surround an acre with a fence like the government is trying to build between us and Mexico, and then drape netting and bug screening over it.

Over the years I grew every kind of raspberry, black, red, yellow and purple, that I could find. I kept ordering the “new and sensational” varieties from the far off vendors of plants. I finally learned the hard way that the best raspberry for me, all things considered, was the wild blackcaps that grew in the woods next to our gardens, available to me for free. I shall try to explain.

First of all, the wild black raspberry is not the wild blackberry. The latter is not hollow, that is thimble-shaped like the raspberry and is not nearly as delicious, at least to most people. The wild black raspberry is slightly smaller than cultivated black raspberry varieties, and while all raspberries are seedy, these wild ones are the champs in that league. But on the plus side, the wild black raspberry has a taste all its own, even a little different from tame black varieties. Red raspberries are good, don’t get me wrong, the yellow variety that someone sent me long ago from Minnesota, is ultra soft and ultra delicious, and the purple ones are, well, okay.  But there is something about a wild black raspberry that will lure its lovers into the wildest of thickets, endure thorn, mosquito, deer fly, poison ivy, and nearly lethal heat to pick a quart of them for a pie. For those looking for natural sources of antioxidants to fight cancer and heart disease, raspberries are listed among the top ten foods in this regard, and depending on who is doing the counting, wild black ones sometimes score in the top five. And although black raspberries are susceptible, even in the wild, to various diseases, particularly orange rust, they keep on producing year after year without any help from humans, while tame varieties of all raspberries seem to decline if neglected.

The reason the wild ones survive on their own is that they move about. In the garden, humans usually want to keep raspberries corralled in permanent rows. Raspberries are like teenagers: they want to get away from their parents but maintain a connection in case they got in a jam. On black and purple varieties, the new canes that come up in the springtime grow to about five feet high, then bend over in midsummer so that the tips of the canes pierce the soil surface and root. The red and yellow ones spread by suckering, that is new canes come up from the roots moving out and away from the parent plants. By moving away from the old stand every year, the new canes usually avoid disease until they fruit in their second year and then die naturally. (Everbearing reds and yellow canes fruit in the fall of their first year and summer of  their second year and then die naturally.)

Understanding this process, the successful raspberry grower sets out new plants in the spring (suckers on red raspberries and the new tip sprouts on the  blacks that rooted the year before), at some distance from the old plants, same as they do for strawberries. Setting out new plants at least a hundred feet from the old row avoids diseases or delays them at least. And makes weed control a little easier. Even if you buy so-called virus-free plants, they are not really all that free because virus-free rarely last for very long and is of no help against fungal diseases like orange rust. It does help to cut out the old canes as soon as they are through fruiting, but that is very hard work since they are growing right in among the new canes.

After struggling with domesticated raspberries for so long, I got to thinking about the wild blackcaps. Why not suffer mosquitoes and the lethal heat in the June woods for my raspberries. I was encouraged in this thinking when an organic market grower told me that he and his family picked a hundred pints or so of wild raspberries every year for sale at their Farmers’ Market. He said that customers nearly fight over them and that they always sell out before any of the domestic raspberries. Hmmm.

But what if I transplanted rooted cane tips in the spring to the garden and let them spread more or less as they do in nature. I was already doing that successfully with our yellow raspberries. I could thus avoid picking berries in the jungle-like environment of the woods. More importantly, I could, maybe, keep the birds away. Birds love wild black raspberries. They probably know something about antioxidants that we don’t yet.

The answer so far is yes on all accounts. The berry bushes do fine when I allow them to spread in a controlled way as they do in nature. I allow only a few canes to stretch out to make a new row several feet from the old, and then yearly, they advance across the garden patch. I remove the old canes behind that advance, and rotary-till where they had grown. When the row reaches  the other side of the plot, I let them march back across the other way.

As you can see from the photo above, we cover our canes with bird netting. The new non-fruiting canes hold the netting far enough away from the fruiting canes below them that birds can’t get to the berries. The berries seem to get a little bigger than in the wild, but I think that is because they can ripen fully under the netting whereas in the wild, birds will often get them as soon as they turn black but are not fully developed and ripe yet.

Pass the honey and cream. My raspberry cup overfloweth.
See also Greg’s Five Fantastic Organic Wild Blackberry Recipes
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming

Image Credit: Gene and Carol Logsdon
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
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