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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Blackberry honey, The Bee Folks, Mount Airy, MD

The blackberry honey that I have comes from the Bee Folks (MountAiry, MD) and was harvested in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, which isn’t surprising since the bulk of blackberry production in the U.S. happens in Oregon, Washington and California.

Marion Blackberry 
As you may know, blackberries are (yummy) edible fruit produced by a number of species in the Rubus genus, and hybrids between the Rubus and Ideaobatus subgenera. While the taxonomy of blackberries might seem straight forward, it is anything but, particularly at the species level. As far as I can tell this confusion stems from the fact that blackberries can reproduce both sexually (via hybridization of two unrelated plants) and asexually (a.k.a. apomixis). This has led to a situation where the original species that existed centuries ago have intercrossed so much that it is unclear where species lines can be drawn. As a consequence some blackberry species are grouped together into ‘species aggregates.’ So a specific species (say Rubus plicatus) may also be part of a species aggregate and can be referred to by the aggregate name (in this case Rubus fruticosus), resulting in the same plant having two different names. It may be easier just to know that all blackberries are in the Rubus genus, and that there are estimated to be over 375 species.

Black Raspberry
One thing that has always puzzled me is the difference between raspberries and blackberries. I know that traditionally one is red and the other is black, and that the shapes of the fruit are a little different, etc. but there are varieties of raspberries that look a lot like blackberries (e.g. black raspberries). So what is the difference?  You may be surprised to know (I was) that it has to do with the stem (called a torus). If you pick the fruit and the torus stays with the fruit, it is a blackberry. If the stem stays on the plant, leaving a hollow core in the fruit, it is a raspberry. Interesting, no?

Other interesting facts I learned: there are three types of blackberry plants: erect, trailing vines and semi-erect; a “thicket” of blackberry (or raspberry) canes is called a bramble (I actually knew this already); and blackberries and raspberries are called collectively “caneberries.” With all this use of “berries” you’d think that blackberries and raspberries are berries, but in fact, botanically, they are not. They are considered an “aggregate fruit composed of small drupelets.” Although “blackdrupelets” doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it? And while you may think that caneberry canes have ‘thorns’- those hard structures with sharp ends- they are, in fact, ‘prickles.’ I learned that thorns are derived from shoots (i.e. they arise from a bud and as a result often have a very predictable pattern and are connected to vascular bundles inside), and prickles are derived from the epidermis and as a result can be found anywhere on the plant, are not connected to vascular bundles and can be more easily removed. And in case you are wondering, there is a third category of “hard structures with sharp ends”:  ‘spines’ that are derived from leaves.  Of note, there are blackberry ‘prickle-free’ cultivars with the best known being “Triple Crown.”

Types of Blackberry Plants
Blackberries are native to Europe, northwestern Africa, temperate western and central Asia, and North and South America, and they are relatively hardy. They don’t need specific soil conditions and can tolerate cold. They thrive in ditches, wastelands and vacant lots, but they do best in temperate climes where there is a winter chilling to stimulate flower buds. And lots of things eat blackberry leaves – caterpillars, deer- so they are not without their enemies. Other animals eat their fruit- fox, badgers and small birds- which helps disseminate seeds. Blackberries have been introduced and thrive in non-native areas (e.g. Australia, Chile, New Zealand) where they are considered to be an invasive species.
Schematic Showing Primacanes and Floricanes
Blackberries are perennials but it usually takes two years for a cane to produce fruit. In the first year the new stem (called a “primocane”) grows to its full length but does not produce flowers. Then in the second year, the stem doesn’t grow anymore but its lateral buds produce flowering laterals (called a “floricane”).  Floricanes die after they have fruited and new canes replace them, growing from the roots of old canes. Raspberries, in contrast, only take one year with the growth and flowering occurring in the same year. While you might think this is yet another difference between blackberries and raspberries, be aware that there are exceptions (i.e. there are blackberry cultivars that produce fruit in the first year that are called “everbearing”). Blackberry plants can produce fruit for 10-20 years.

Flowers (white or pink) are produced in late spring/early summer, and fruit are produced post pollination, so blackberries are reliant on pollinators (like bees). Conditions that affect pollination (weather, heat, etc.) affect the quantity and quality of fruit. The fruit, which starts out red and then ripens to black (due to their containing anthocyanins), is a good source of fiber, vitamin C and vitamin K. Of interest, the seeds- which may not be a favorite with consumers- are high in omega-3 and -6 fats, protein, and fiber.

Characteristics of Different Cultivars (
Globally Mexico is the leading producer of blackberries- predominantly now from the cultivar Tupy (or Tupi, a Brazilian cultivar developed in the 1990s) but originally from the cultivar “Brazos” (a cultivar develop in Texas in 1959). In the U.S., Oregon is the leading commercial producer, with about 60% of the crop being the Marion cultivar (an industry standard cultivar that was developed in 1956 and named after Marion county). Of interest, the U.S. is a leader in developing all sorts of blackberry cultivars (now generally through work done by the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) in their breeding program in Corvallis, Oregon, but originally pioneered by Luther Burbank, father of the “Phenomenal” and “White” cultivars). The U.S. has a long tradition of being in the blackberry cultivar business. In 1880 Judge Logan introduced the Loganberry, a blackberry-raspberry cultivar that is grouped with blackberries, in California. And George Darrow and Walter Knott (of Knott’s Berry Farm in California) developed the Boysenberry, a prickle-free blackberry-raspberry hybrid cultivar. The Boysenberry was named after Rudolf Boysen, the owner of the farm where the original cultivars came from. In 1905 the Youngberry was developed in Louisiana from crossing Luther Burbank, Phenomenal Berry, and Austin-Mayes Dewberry cultivars. 

Fruit Size Differences: L to R Navaho, Apache, Kiowa
The names of blackberry cultivars read like either a list of synonyms for “black” (e.g. “Black Diamond,” “Black Pearl,” “Nightfall,” and “Obsidian”), Native American tribes (e.g. “Cherokee”, “Choctaw”, “Navaho,”  “Chicasaw,”and ”Apache”), people who were associated with the cultivar (e.g. “Austin-Mayes,”and “Boysenberry”), or qualities of the new cultivar (e.g. “Thornless”, “Ouchita” (very thorny), and “Illini Hardy” (produced at the University of Illinois and cold hardy)). I’m assuming the developer of the cultivar has naming rights, which must be a nice perk after all the work it takes to make it happen.

Blackberry cultivars differ regarding zone hardiness, growth pattern (i.e. erect, semi-erect and trailing), thorn status, fruit size, shape, color, flavor and yield, cane length, and fruit time of ripening.  I’m amazed at the variety. If you are considering growing blackberries it is worth researching all the cultivars that are available! And next time I buy blackberries I’ll pay attention to where they were grown and what cultivar produced them.

Blackberry Honey
The blackberry honey I have is thick and a mellow burnt orange color with a subtle berry aroma. It has classic honey sweetness- but not overly sweet- with undertones of ripe blackberries, especially in the after taste. It brings to mind lazy, hot summer days with the sun beating down and the sound of bees going from flower to flower. This may be as close as you can get to putting summer in a jar. This honey would be very tasty in tea, in hot cereal, on hot buttered toast, or right out of the jar. 


  1. Honestly, I thought I was a total weirdo for "collecting" honey, so I was thrilled to stumble upon your blog. :-) Right now, I'm in the Republic of Georgia, and I just tasted the must amazing honey I've ever had. I got a local honey from the grocery store (out of desperation because I needed it immediately). Imagine my surprise when I opened the jar and smelled grapes. When I tasted it, I discovered that my honey TASTES LIKE GRAPES!!! I've had mint, lavender, sage, eucalyptus, buckwheat, etc., etc., but never grape. It's amazing!

    Thanks for sharing all your honey experiences. :-)

    1. What a treat! I've never had a honey that tastes like grapes- am a bit jealous :) I'll look out for honey from the Republic of Georgia! If you have a moment, pass on the name/origin, or anything else on the label.