Closer Look

It’s blackberry season in the South

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Keith Blanton

It’s blackberry picking time, if you are so inclined. You must be willing to brave the heat, humidity, briar scratches, ticks, possibility of finding a copperhead or rattlesnake at your feet, and the much greater possibility of a large dose of chiggers. 

Berry picking was a family event every summer when I was a kid, for fun and profit. When I was about 11 or 12 and into my early teens, we picked berries by the gallon and sold them in town, sometimes to the local fruit stand and sometimes to people who just knew by word of mouth that berries were for sale and would put in an order. 

The barber who cut my hair always bought some. It seems like there was always more demand than supply, and I got bored with the enterprise after a few gallons. It lost its thrill and became just a hot, sticky, miserable job. 

I don’t remember what we got for them – probably just a few dollars a gallon. We filled these little, square, wooden, quart-sized boxes full of berries to sell at the fruit stand.

KEITH BLANTON offers tips on how to avoid common pitfalls of blackberry picking.

I went for quality, selecting the biggest, ripest ones, and was careful not to pick ones that were too hard or still had a little red on one side or ones half eaten by bugs. I was always trying not to eat too many, but I did have to sample the biggest, juiciest ones (for quality control purposes, of course). The ones that were too ripe would just get squashed in the bucket anyway, I rationalized.

My Dad was a “Rambo” picker. “Pick ‘em all and let mom sort ‘em out” seemed to be his motto. He grabbed handfuls at a time: black ones, red ones, stems, and leaves. He could fill a bucket faster than anyone, but the quality was mixed. 

Of course, we also picked gallons and gallons for our own use. Dozens of jars of blackberry jelly were made, canned berries and juice for cobbler, and sometimes Dad made some homemade blackberry wine. 

Growing up on an Appalachian farm in the 1960s and 70s, we were still rooted in the old ways of living off the land. We always had a big garden, and during my early childhood Mom didn’t work outside the home, but she sure as heck worked inside the home. All summer long it was picking and canning and freezing. 

Picking perils

Getting pricked by the briars is an issue when picking. Blackberry thorns are recurved, so as you try to pull away, they just dig deeper until the thorn rips off the vine and stays imbedded in your flesh. 

Picking also involves flicking stink bugs and ants out of the bucket, fingers stained a dark purplish-blue, and wondering if you will wake up in the middle of the night scratching a fresh batch of chiggers.

If you are from “somewhere else” and haven’t ventured into the weeds and brush around here, you may not be familiar with chiggers – little microscopic mites from hell. You owe it to yourself to get a good infestation at least once in your life, just for the experience. The itching goes away on its own – eventually.

Here is some advice if you want to get serious about gathering wild blackberries this summer: 

  1. Get some thick brush pants with an extra layer of fabric on the front; these are the kind bird hunters wear. They will be uncomfortably hot in this heat but will help to deter the effects of the briars.
  2. Spray the pants (not your skin) with an insect repellent containing Permethrin and, if possible, tuck the pant legs into high-top boots. Hopefully this will deter the chiggers.
  3. Get a metal or plastic bucket with a bail-type handle on top, run your belt through the bail so that the bucket hangs in front of your waist. Now you can pick with both hands without having to hold the bucket.

Happy picking!

Keith Blanton is a Macon County native and a retired wildlife biologist.