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GARDEN FRESH

Purple Reign

June 15, 1995|SYLVIA THOMPSON

For some reason, I'm annoyed when I stain my fingers with beets. For some reason, I love it when my fingers--and tongue and teeth and chin--turn purple from juicy blackberries.

Blackberries are brambles, part of the rose clan. There are more than 250 sorts of brambles, among them raspberries, wineberries, dewberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, cloudberries--and briar roses. If you see a small, ancient, single-petaled white briar rose and a white blackberry blossom, you'll at once perceive the connection.

It may be that a rose is a rose is a rose, but a blackberry is not always a blackberry. Sometimes fruits with blackberry heritage or fruits that appear blackberry-ish--cousin Himalaya berry, for instance--are lumped with the blackberries in catalogues. While names are inconsequential for good eating, we need names to be sure what we've enjoyed is what we plant.

While you plant blackberries in very early spring, I write about them now, since they're coming into season. Make a sticky note for your new calendar. Between now and next March, do a little reading or nosing about with neighbors who grow blackberries. One thing you'll learn: how important it is to suit the cultivar to your area. Happily, there are blackberries that will grow in every part of Southern California, and there are cultivars resistant to many bramble diseases and pests. I find a big part of successful gardening is ask, ask, ask.

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Where summers are warm and winters mild, grow berries with unsurpassed wild taste: small, deep-reddish-black Cascades are so delicate and juicy they don't ship, so here's another opportunity to grow flavor you can't buy (to me, the whole point of a kitchen garden). Then, while you can buy Olallieberries, they're considered the classic blackberry for every part of Southern California except cold-winter mountains and hot-summer deserts. Olallies are large, long, glossy black and sweet, yet touched with wild berry flavor. Bright-black Marion berries are similar to Olallies with greater yield.

Shiny, wine-dark Young berries will grow everywhere in Southern California (in frigid winters, lay canes on the ground and mulch with straw). Other vines may be more productive, but no blackberries are sweeter. Dusty, deep-red Boysenberries are not as sweet but are wonderfully scented. Thornless Boysens, by the way, seem to produce smaller fruit and less of it than those on thorny canes--this is true of the thornless form of Logans. Logans are reddish and tarter--and some think more flavorful--than Boysens.

Blackberries grow in two basic forms. Most cultivars for temperate regions are the trailing type, robust and thorny. In the landscape, trailing blackberries are great barriers-- nothing gets past them, not even raccoons. Encircle any patch of treasures with a hedge of trailing blackberries, or cross thin thorny canes over the likes of a ripening melon. Sometimes in August I can hear shrieks of frustration from the rackety coons.

Blackberries from trailing cultivars are best picked when the vines are looped on wires or sent up trellises. This is easier done than said--describing the technique is lengthy. I recommend "Louise Riotte's Berries, Rasp and Black (Garden Way)" or the new "Sunset Western Garden Book" for details. Having said that, I must tell you I hate fussy chores and when I grow trailing blackberries, I tie up nothing. No, I couldn't reach every berry, but yes, I got pleasure from admiring the canes lolling about the garden.

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Where winters are cold, plants with stiff upright canes are hardiest. That's the sort we grow here in the mountains--they're also best for the high desert. Cherokee, with large delectable shiny black berries, is a good choice. Shawnee, a Cherokee offspring, offers extra-large high-quality fruit on extra-productive canes. Upright plants create a fountain of reddish canes, and though a support is most efficient, I like their natural exuberance. Unless I'm cadging a few ripe berries as I pass by, for serious picking I put on thick clothing, a cap and leather gloves.

Blackberries grow handsomely in containers--allow one half-barrel per plant.

Birds are wretched around blackberries. Our patch is small, and there have been seasons when the birds have taken the whole crop. Since then, I've found the best defense is a big yellow balloon with a gleaming eye hung close by the berries and moved every few days. I've given up netting because each year a feisty bird pecks its way through, becomes trapped, and we both have a panicky time getting him/her out. The ideal solution would be to grow three times as many berries as we could eat, then pounce when the berries are ripe--two-thirds having been taken by the birds. But, as my husband says, we must reimburse them for their song.

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