I was eight or nine years old, on a trip up the California coast, over cliffs and through forests, when I first learned how to forage. My father, whose unpredictable and free spirit seemingly burns brighter when outdoors, had suddenly bent down into the bushes by the side of a quiet creek. A few minutes later, he emerged, holding something in his hands, which he then dipped into the running water. Nestled in the cavity of his palms was a mound of glistening, juicy blackberries.
He explained how he had these all the time as a child in Lebanon. They would pick berries by the water source in the village, perfectly cooled by the running creek on late August afternoons. Though I was concerned that they were filled with poison, I tried some. There’s a specific tang and liberating quality to wild blackberries, something that just isn’t in the store-bought variety.
Blackberries are an invasive species, always growing in close proximity to water, crawling through bushes and from crumbling river banks. It only takes one small piece of stem or rhizome for a bush to pop up, spreading its spiny arms, braiding itself into an impenetrable thicket.
If they’re grown mostly in the shade, they’re less sweet but carry an exciting rebellious and wild taste. In full sun, they’re likely to be sugary and juicy. In partial sun and shade, there’s no way to know how they might turn out — sometimes bland, sometimes brighter than both counterparts.
It is important while foraging to correctly identify both the physical characteristics of the plant and its leaves, in addition to the fruit. Female, wild blackberry brambles are characterized by their thorny vines, dark green, flat leaves with serrated edges and clumped fruit. For more information, visiting websites dedicated to identifying plants for foraging is always a good idea. Additionally, using a photo-capturing search engine can be useful in quickly gathering some information.
The good thing about foraging wild berries, specifically blue or blackberries, is that there are very few inedible ones. Around 90% of wild black, purple and blue-skinned berries are edible, with exceptions like the infamous nightshade berry, often mistaken for a blueberry.
But, in late October, blackberries have a slightly more spooky connotation. There’s first the warning that comes after Michaelmas, celebrated on Sept. 29, following the fall equinox. According to British folklore, on Old Michaelmas Day, which falls usually on Oct. 10, the blackberry season should end and no more should be picked. The reasoning behind this is that this is the day it is said Lucifer fell from heaven and into a blackberry bush. Upon landing in its spiny brambles, he cursed the plant, spat on its berries, therefore making them unfit for further consumption.
There’s also the matter of vampires. According to mythos, vampires have an unexpected obsession with blackberries, captivated even over the draw of blood. A vampire out at night may be halted by a blackberry bush outside your home and feel compelled to count every bramble, leaf then berry on the bush. And before the vampire knows it, the sun is rising and they have forgotten all about their victims inside the house.
Regardless of folktales, the blackberry season is an indicator that autumn is coming, if not already here.
There’s nothing that binds the summer and fall seasons together like a baked treat highlighting star produce from both. The tang of blackberries and sweet apples under a warm cinnamon and walnut crumble is a sensory match made in heaven.
Blackberry Apple Crumble
Yield: 1-2 servings
Time: 30 minutes
- 1 pint fresh (and perhaps wild) blackberries
- 1 Pink Lady apple, cubed
- 1/3 cup old-fashioned oats
- 3 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon almond flour
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- A handful of walnuts
- Preheat the oven to 350 °F.
- In a small, greased dish, combine the fruit.
- In a separate bowl, combine the old-fashioned oats, cold butter, almond flour and walnuts. Toss the mixture with your hands, breaking apart the butter into smaller bits. Add in the brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Spread the topping evenly over the fruit.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a fork can easily pierce the apples, and until the crumble is golden.
- Serve alone or with ice cream for a refreshing fall treat.
Since that fateful Pacific Northwest trip during my childhood, foraging for berries is one of my favorite treats about being in nature. I love any sort of fruit I can scrounge from plants. But when it’s free, or in unlimited supply, I could spend hours pricking the pads of my fingers on thorny stems.
And, whether you believe that the devil spat on all blackberries after Oct. 10 or that they are a fruit to ward off vampires, I suggest you try a few from the bush.
A version of this article appeared on p. 9 of the October 26, 2023 version of the Daily Nexus.