It’s a long time since we’ve seen many pickers, young and old, joined by yours truly in accordance with a time-honoured autumn ritual. Blackberries are there by the bucket-load waiting to be picked from the thorny brambles along ditches and hedgerows.
And they should be there for some weeks, as many of the berries are still not fully ripe. People are buying imported and frozen berries in supermarkets, but this abundant crop is out there under their noses waiting to be harvested — fresh and for free.
Like all fruits, blackberries are said to have health-giving properties. The ancient Greeks regarded them as a cure for diseases of the mouth and throat, as well as being preventative against many ailments including gout. Soldiers in the First World War drank the juice to maintain good health, while in the American Civil War soldiers used blackberries to treat dysentery.
Medical researchers have found the berries contain antioxidants which help to fight cancer-causing free radicals. A study at the University of Ohio, US, showed that blackberries are among the most potent cancer-fighting berries. Long, long ago, the blackberry leaf was also used as a hair dye.
As children going picking, we were given clear instructions — so well explained that we haven’t forgotten them. First was how to discern a ripe blackberry — it’s pure black with a plump, full feel and will come from the plant with just a little tug. If the berry is red or purple, it’s not ripe yet. Berries not fully black should be left for another day.
People should also careful when they pick contaminated and dirty blackberries. Most times, it’s pretty obvious if a berry has been attacked by insects: it will have a rotten, unhealthy look around the stem and base. Just drop that berry. Insects seem to be particularly active this year.
The blackberry also features in Irish folklore and there was a belief that fairies lived beneath the brambles, prompting fears that they could take away a delicate child in the home.
According to the schools’ folklore collection, carried out by UCD in the 1937/38, there was a custom in Co Mayo of rubbing the first blackberries picked on the fingernails to keep them from getting sore later in the year. Farmers also believed a good supply of blackberries presaged a severe winter ahead. Let’s hope they were wrong on that one.