Ode to the mountain blackberry

'Tis the season, and lest you’ve sipped a fine old Riesling from the Rheingau, you can’t imagine what a fresh-baked Rubus ursinus pie can do to your taste buds.
Crosscut archive image.

The wild blackberry: how sweet it is.

'Tis the season, and lest you’ve sipped a fine old Riesling from the Rheingau, you can’t imagine what a fresh-baked Rubus ursinus pie can do to your taste buds.

When I was eight years old, I already knew just what “mixed feelings” meant. It meant blackberries.

And blackberries meant being handed a lard pail and told to march out across the trestle of an old logging line near my grandmother’s house, stumble down the bank into the hot, dusty, stickery undergrowth, and pick.

“And don’t you come back till you’ve got your gallon.”

Oh, but when we kids came back with our gallons (the big ones helping the little ones fill their pails, a major life lesson); when we did come back it was to stand on the porch, waiting for that heavenly smell to drift from the kitchen. Blackberry pie.

If you haven’t experienced the aroma, you can’t know what it meant to us. A sweetness you could taste with your nose, with an underlying tang that set the saliva flowing. When the pie was just cool enough to eat, thanks to the scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, its base flavor as metallic as putting your tongue on rusty iron, followed by layer after layer of bite, sweetness, then supersweetness offset by bracing acid tang. Unless you’ve tasted a 10-year-old Riesling Auslese from the Rheingau, you can’t dream what a fresh-baked wild mountain blackberry pie tastes — and smells, like.

I call them “mountain” blackberries, even though they grow just as well in the lowlands, wherever the earth is disturbed enough to receive their hard little seeds — dropped by a passing bird — and the exposure offers the dappled sun and congested neighborhood they favor. Their scientific name is Rubus ursinus, the “bear’s berry,” and if you’ve ever heard the heavy snort of competition when you’re up to your knees in brambles in a clear-cut, you'll know why.

The native blackberry is a distant cousin of the hardier, invasive evergreen and Himalaya blackberries that blockade innumerable vacant lots; “habitat” for lots of insects, birds and vermin, “noxious weeds” for homeowners and the King County Extension Service. You can make a pie out of their fruit, after you’ve washed off the worst of the hydrocarbon film and traffic dirt. You may even enjoy it; but only if you’ve never, never tasted the ursinus variety.

Crosscut archive image.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Roger Downey

Roger Downey is a Seattle writer interested in food, the arts, the sciences, and urban manners. He is currently working on a book about the birth of opera in 1630s Venice.

Native youth theater finds home at Seattle’s King Street Station

For the first time in its 32 years, Red Eagle Soaring has its own performance space in a new arts hub at the historic train station.