Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Black Raspberries

A Black Raspberry harvest, photograph courtesy of Marvin Pritts
Mid summer is prime time for picking raspberries.

Raspberries are at their peak. Strawberries and mulberries may have already peaked in generous harvests and blackberries and blueberries have yet to appear.

Perhaps my love of raspberries comes from my mother. Her father lived next door to the Cimonetti family in Glen Cove, on Long Island. Whenever we visited, Nicky would bring over fresh raspberries, just picked that morning.

While living in Bloomington, Indiana, we moved several times. My father may have made one of the moves for my mother; next door was a large garden with a healthy grove of raspberries. Other kids sneaked out at night to smoke; I was sneaked out and tried to tell the difference between ripe and hard fruit without a flashlight.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, someone said that a fungus was going to make the species extinct. So, when I found raspberries in a San Francisco Safeway, during a visit to friends Jim and Yvonne, I bought several pints and called my parents from the airport.

Even though the traffic to JFK was horrible that day, my parents met me between planes and were happy to get the berries.

In the supermarket, Driscoll’s is often the main brand of raspberries. But my favorite berries are in our backyard and on the local road in front of our house.

Black raspberry bushes: the red raspberries in this picture
are berries that are not yet ripe.
Photograph by Marvin Pritts

The biggest black raspberries, or black caps, as they are also called, in the backyard have a diameter no larger than a dime. According to Marvin Pritts, Chair of Cornell University’s Horticulture Department, and a raspberry fan himself, “Genetics tend to limit the size of wild black raspberries.” “Even if a person carefully tends the plants,” he continued, “they are still likely to be smaller than plants that have been bred and selected for larger fruit size.” Cornell has an excellent website with lots of information about raspberries and other appealing fruit.

I have a circuit through the backyard, which hits all the berry bushes. Most of the time, my companions include many mosquitoes and flies. On a good day, half an hour will yield about a pint of berries.

It's not a pint's worth of a good day, but this batch of
black raspberries made two bowls of cereal
a much better breakfast

Black raspberries always seem to be there but they have a precarious existence.

According to Pritts, black raspberries “prefer full sun and well-drained soils. They tend to die out once trees grow up and start to shade them.” They appear to prefer “habitats that receive periodic disturbances (e.g. fires, clear cutting) as the roots can persist for many years under shaded conditions. When the disturbance happens, they grow rapidly (since they are already present on the site) and tend to dominate a site for several years.”

This is consistent with berry life in the neighborhood. Three years ago, there were berry bushes along the road. Rose the Dog, a white Samoyed, and I were a distinctive sight as we walked along. I would eat the higher up berries; Rose would delicately lick and nip the berries off the lower canes.

These bushes are gone because of shading and my neighbor’s changed mowing pattern. But new bushes appeared in the backyard after Hurricane Irene dropped several trees. Some of the best berry patches near the house still get enough sun but are entangled in wild grape vines and goldenrod.

E.B. Poling from North Carolina State states black raspberry canes live for two years. In year one, the cane grows. At the beginning of year two, the cane flowers and then fruit forms. After the berries are gone, the cane dies. In addition to the North Carolina State University website, Virginia Tech has a nice electronic page on black raspberries.

Pritts explains that the ancestors of raspberries came from Asia. He suspects “the black raspberry evolved in North America, although there is a different species with black fruit from India.” “Regardless,” he concludes “we find black raspberries in eastern North America (naturally) and no where else in the world.”

Adding black raspberries to a morning bowl of cereal or snacking on them while mowing are great treats. Whether it’s a cool day or a humid blast furnace, the sweet taste and the way each fruit is delicious yet unique, a sort of horticultural snowflake.

No comments:

Post a Comment