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Plant the Herb of the Year group: blackberries and dewberries

Judy Barrett, Special to the American-Statesman
Blackberries can be easy to grow in Texas if you pick the right variety. [Judy Barrett for Statesman]

Here we are already well into January, and chances are most of us haven’t given a thought to the Herb of the Year. In an effort to educate and enlighten people about the characteristics, pleasures and uses of herbs and encourage enthusiasm for the individual plants, each year since 1995, the International Herb Association has designated an Herb of the Year. During the year, herb society members from local to international groups will learn and teach about the honored plant. This year the choice is Rubus spp.

Rubus is a large group of plants rather than a single choice like elderberry or dill. Included in this group, which is also described as “brambles” and “cane fruit,” are blackberries, raspberries, dewberries and similar fruits.

In the rose family, Rubus contains at least 250 species. Blackberries and dewberries are most common in our area although some hybrid raspberries claim to withstand the heat. Other hybrids in the family are loganberry, boysenberry, marionberry and tayberry. Like the raspberry, these plants are more often grown in cooler areas of the country. These hybrids were developed in the United States and United Kingdom in the past 130 years, including one, Skellyberry (R.ideaus) which was supposedly introduced in Texas in the 2000s. I can’t find any information about that variety; if you do, let me know.

Meanwhile, blackberries and dewberries have escaped to the wild in many parts of the state, and most of us have come up against their thorny canes in wild areas, often near water. I remember a business near Austin years ago that farmed blackberries and crawdads in the same area.

Dewberries are most likely to be found in the wild. Native to North America, they are low-growing, smaller fruits than blackberries, but very similar, and some claim they are tastier. They can both be cultivated in home gardens and will bloom and fruit slightly earlier than blackberries.

So, what makes Rubus worthy of being Herb of the Year? First of all, you have to remember that herbs are multitaskers. They are not only food but also useful plants in a variety of ways. The plants growing wild are excellent sources of food for birds and other wildlife foraging in unsettled areas. Bees enjoy the nectar from the flowers. Fruit ripens early and provides a source of food for critters when other food is not available. Deer and rabbits like to graze on the new growth of the foliage of the plants.

In addition to feeding animals, the leaves, roots and berries have been traditionally used to make medicine. Blackberry is used for treating diarrhea, fluid retention, diabetes, gout and inflammation and for preventing cancer and heart disease. A tea is also used as a mouth rinse for mild mouth and throat irritation. Poultices, compresses, decoctions, teas and juices have all served as medicine in both the U.S. and abroad. The plant can be used to make a bluish-purple dye.

Of course, the most popular uses of these fruits are culinary. Popping fresh berries in your mouth is a time-honored rite of spring. After that comes using them in recipes ranging from spinach salad to cobbler. You can make jams, jellies and wine from the juice of the fruit. You can make your own blackberry tea or buy such commercial offerings as Wild Berry Zinger and Raspberry Zinger herbal teas from Celestial Seasonings. The simplest pie in the world (and my husband’s favorite) involves filling a store-bought pie crust with fresh blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries along with a little sugar and flour.

If you want to grow your own berries, you’ll find that blackberries and dewberries are your best bet in Central Texas. They grow quickly and enthusiastically and, if left to their own devices, will form an impenetrable thicket of thorny canes. If you want fresh berries, you’ll have to give them the attention they deserve.

First, buy your plants now and get them in the ground quickly. By all means, try raspberries if you are adventurous; they are wonderfully tasty. A&M recommends Dorman Red. But blackberries and dewberries are widely grown in Texas with much success. They grow best when they are planted in the winter.

Buy your plants from a local source that knows which varieties do best in your soil and conditions. Texas A&M has developed several varieties, the most popular of which is Brazos, but Rosborough has larger fruit; Womack is best for sandy soil, and Brison is the best choice for clay or black land soil.

Blackberries prefer full sun and soil that drains well. They also prefer sand but will thrive in compost-amended soils of any type. Plant your bare root plants as soon as you buy them or keep them moist until you are ready to plant. If they look dried out at the nursery, pass them by.

Plant the roots at the same depth they were growing at the nursery. The crown, the spot where the roots meet the stem, should be even with the soil. Spread the roots out in the hole and fill with soil. Water well.

Don’t fertilize your young plants until late spring or summer. Use an organic fertilizer, either dry or water soluble and keep the soil moist, but not soggy, as the plant begins to grow.

After the second year, you will need to prune your berries to keep them from tangling. While blackberry roots are perennial, the tops are biennial (lasting two years). The fruit grows on two-year-old canes, so after old canes finish fruiting, they will need cutting to the ground.

Young canes can be cut back in the late summer or fall to make picking easier and control sprawl. Every three years, mature plants need to be cut to the ground in the summer to remove diseased wood and rejuvenate the plant.

The flavor of the blackberries or dewberries is worth the effort. Be sure you curb your enthusiasm, though, and don’t plant more than you can prune, keep weed-free and water during dry spells.

Judy Barrett is the author of several gardening books, including “Easy Edibles” from Texas A&M Press.