Summer sweets: bramble on and on and on

High summer means many favorite fruits are ripening. Peaches are probably one of my favorites (an inherited trait from my grandfather), and backyard trees and bins at the farmers market are filled with this delicious fruit.

However, I think more home gardeners grow the other popular fruits of summer — the brambles. These fruits — raspberries, blackberries and their relatives — are common in many gardens, and for good reason. Because the fruits are so tender, they are often hard to transport and therefore hard to find at market.

When my grandmother was alive, she loved to go to her family reunion on the weekend closest to the Fourth of July. One thing that she made, and was expected to bring, was a black raspberry cake — a vanilla cake infused with black raspberries covered in homemade black raspberry icing.

The result was tasty and always disappeared. I’ll note here that my family never grew red raspberries — they were too tart for my family’s Appalachian sweet tooth.

There’s a whole host of plants in this fruiting family, from the well-known raspberries and blackberries to lesser known boysenberries, tayberries, dewberries, Loganberries and wine berries. Throughout the region, blackberries and some raspberries grow wild and have for generations, but their numbers have dwindled due to land development and diseases that affect the plants. These days, they’re more commonly found on farms and in gardens.

There are a few things to know about brambles to grow them. First, the name bramble comes from their growth habit — canes that normally bear thorns. Most are in the genus Rubus, which is in the rose family — you may see the resemblance. There are thorn-less varieties available, but they are often less productive and hardy than their thorny relatives.

Both blackberries and raspberries have an interesting growth cycle. The roots of the plant are perennial: you plant them once and they persist for many years. The plant produces the canes that bear the flowers and fruit are biennial.

The canes have a two-year life cycle where most of them don’t bloom or produce fruit until the second year. The cane dies after the second season and needs to be pruned out.

In the first year of growth, a bramble cane is referred to as a primocane, meaning first or initial cane. In the second season when it blooms and fruits, it is referred to as a floricane. There are a few varieties of blackberries and raspberries that have been developed to flower and fruit on primocanes, which has both positives and negatives.

One of the issues with normal floricane berries is that you have to reach into the base of the plant and risk getting scratched up by thorns to prune out the spent canes. Primocane brambles produce their main crop in the first year, usually later in the season (fall) and a small secondary crop in the following summer.

Because the second harvest is pretty negligible, many people just cut the whole plant down at the end of the season so they don’t have to selectively prune out the spent canes. However, an emerging pest, the Spotted-Wing Drosophila, is making it harder to grow these late-fruiting varieties.

The pest, a relative of the fruit fly, lays its eggs on soft fruits late in the summer. The eggs hatch and the larvae (maggots) eat the berries, turning them to mush.

The trick is to apply an insecticide spray when the insects are present. To do that, you have to have a trap to check for their presence.

Floricane-fruiting red raspberries are probably the easiest of the main three bramble types to grow. Common varieties are Boyne, Latham, Taylor and Titan.

They have a relatively compact growth compared to black raspberries and blackberries. They don’t typically require pruning beyond the pruning out of the spent floricanes and thinning out new canes if they are too thick in the dormant season. You can also prune them back to 4 to 5 feet at that time if they have grown beyond that.

Primocane-fruiting varieties will fruit later in the season and can be mowed down after fruiting if you don’t want to wait for the small crop the following year. Common varieties include Autumn Bliss, Caroline and Heritage. Some varieties are also gold instead of red: Anne, Fall Gold and Kiwigold.

Black raspberries (and their rarer counterpart purple raspberries) require tip pruning in the summer. The tips of the canes should be removed when they reach about 3 feet in height to encourage lateral growth, which is where fruit is produced. You should do this through the summer.

Some varieties are trailing and will require a trellis to keep them upright. Some are erect and do not require a trellis. Like other brambles, they need to be thinned and spent canes removed during the dormant season.

Lateral canes growing from primocanes should be cut to 12 to 18 inches. Common varieties of black raspberries are Allen, Bristol and Jewel. Common varieties of purple raspberries are Brandywine and Royalty.

Like black raspberries, blackberries need to be pruned in the summer to 3 to 4 feet. If left unpruned, they will often grow to a long, unmanageable size. Summer pruning not only keeps the vine under control, but also increases fruit yield. Common varieties of blackberry are Chickasaw, Choctaw, Darrow, Illini Hardy, Kiowa and Shawnee. Thornless varieties are Apache, Arapaho, Navajo, Ouachita and Triple Crown.

Primocane-fruiting varieties are Prime-Jim, Prime-Jan and Prime-Ark 45.

There are a variety of brambles out there for any taste and gardening style. From the traditional blackberries and raspberries to the more uncommon varieties and wild-harvested types. They are all great ways to add fresh, tart flavor to your summer and are usually pretty easy to maintain. I highly suggest you give them a try. Just watch out for those thorns!

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