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Monday, August 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Black velvet bliss — and major thorn: blackberry a double-edged fruit

Seattle Times staff reporter

You can call them ouchberries, curse them, or wave the white flag, open your mouth and savor them. Blackberries are good for all of that.

Our love-hate relationship with Rubis discolor is never more plain than now, when the fragrance of a thicket of ripening blackberries is the very essence of this bittersweet, golden time — the end of summer.

Just when the light is turning to gold, starting to slant lower and evening comes quicker, just as the sun seems to penetrate and bake the bones with that lovely, almost-September heat: It's blackberry time.

Those same bushes we curse the rest of the year are the ones that rip our skin open with a passing swipe, the ones that team up with morning glory and nettle to intimidate us clear out of the yard, pitching the clippers into the bushes without a backward glance. Now's the time blackberries put on their sweet-as-pie faces.

We snug in close to their velvety black trusses of juicy bounty, with our bags and our baskets and cups and outstretched hands. We smile purple, knowing smiles to fellow pickers.

Blackberries are as Northwest as salmon, as rain, as rot. They are our signature fruit. Might as well welcome them, in any case, as this is not a plant to knock or ask for an appointment.

Nature could not have designed a better invader than the Himalayan blackberry, a native of Eurasia.

In a sunny site with some water, a patch will expand 10 feet in girth in a year. Consider the blackberry's abilities, truly without parallel, when it comes to reproduction:

Its flowers need no pollination. Unlike other plants that need their pollen transferred in some fashion to the ovary, the blackberry sets seed on its own. Bees need not apply.

Not only does this ensure reproduction no matter what the weather — bees dally in their nests on cool, wet days — it saves the blackberry energy for even more growth.

Blackberry also spreads voraciously by tip rooting. Fountains of canes spring from the mother bush and arc to the ground, rooting every place they touch. This technique makes the blackberry the snakehead of the plant world: The blackberry can leapfrog across the landscape, smothering everything in its path.

Wherever the blackberry doesn't swagger on its own, animals sow it, gobbling its fruits with their devilish deal: Eat me, and spread my seeds.

Blackberry is also semi-evergreen, continuing to photosynthesize in winter. While other plants kick back for the winter, the blackberry never stops growing.

Then there is the blackberry's defense system: Its large, stiff, hooked thorns are out for blood. Even its leaves are saw-toothed.

Put it all together and the plant's five-sided canes begin to make some sense.

"Demonic, no doubt," surmises Thomas Hinckley, director of the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture, barely kidding.

Sarah E. Reichard, also of the center, notes that Australian scientists have found the blackberry's root crown can be 8 inches in diameter, and its main root 5 feet deep, with numerous secondary roots spreading in all directions. Disturb them, and suckers sprout, Hydra-like, creating more trouble.

Blackberries can generate more than 12 tons of living biomass per acre. More than half of it is thorny canes; 41 percent of it roots. They can produce another 11 tons per acre of dead canes and leaf litter.

Another study found a single bush can generate from 7,000 to 13,000 seeds per square yard. If only 1 percent of the seeds germinate in the first year, that's still 70 to 130 seedlings per square yard.

No wonder the state and county won't even list Himalayan blackberry as a noxious weed.

"To put it on the noxious-weed list and make people control it would be just insane," said Dana Coggan, education specialist for the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board. "It's out of control."

Indeed, we humans are a laughingstock before the mighty blackberry. Who hasn't tried it all: Flame weeders? Weed whackers? Brush hogs? Chemical warfare? Try a backhoe, or bulldozer. It will work, but only for a while. The blackberry always comes back.

Just ask Nancy Hooper, owner of the Beall Greenhouses on Vashon Island, a King County historic landmark dating to 1888.

Hooper and her husband, Chuck, grubbed the blackberry out of four of the historic greenhouses by hand seven years ago.

Today blackberries wave once again through the broken glass of the rooftops. Blackberry packs the interiors, leaks out the doors and reaches through walls, greedy for passing flesh. A former neighbor complained the couple had put up new buildings on the site. In fact they had dug the 15-foot-tall outbuildings out of the blackberries smothering them.

Outfitted in hard hat, goggle, gloves and boots, Hooper has been clearing blackberry from the property for more than 10 years.

"It's like a Desert Storm offensive. At first, it was an anger thing. Then it was very therapeutic, I'd think about people I didn't like in my past," Hooper said. By now, she believes the blackberries have a mind of their own. "They will just kind of reach out and grab you."

As for the property, it's for sale.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. Natural Wonders appears every other Monday.

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