Himalayan Blackberry Plants: Invasive, Noxious, and Beautiful
Delicious Fruit From an Invasive Plant
Every year I look forward to the late summer crop of wild blackberries beside the trails near my home. The thorns and prickles on the blackberry bushes make picking the fruit a challenge, but the berries taste wonderful. They are great to eat fresh from the bush or later as a dessert.
Picking wild blackberries is a popular late summer and early fall activity here in southwestern British Columbia. People are not so happy when the blackberry plant invades their gardens, which it does if it gets the chance.
The Himalayan blackberry is the species that grows near my home. It isn’t native to British Columbia and is very invasive. Once the plant has established itself in an area, it’s hard to get rid of. I enjoy photographing the blackberry in spring and summer, though. At this time of year it's an attractive plant. All of the photos in this article were taken by me.
Stems and Canes
The usual scientific name of the Himalayan blackberry is Rubus armeniacus, but it's sometimes known as Rubus discolor. It grows in many habitats, including the edge of forests, in open woodlands, beside trails and roads, in gardens, beside rivers, and on farmland. It can reach a height of three meters, or almost ten feet.
The mature stems of the Himalayan blackberry plant are thick and are known as canes. The canes are green or red and bear large thorns that have a red base and a sharp, light green point. A cane can grow as long as twelve meters (about thirty nine feet). The stem of the young plant grows upwards at first, but soon it bends over in a graceful arch to reach the ground. It then grows along the ground and may send roots into the soil.
The prickly and sprawling blackberry bush is sometimes known as a bramble. The word "bramble" may also be used for the fruit of the plant.
Each leaf has five leaflets (or sometimes three). These are green on the upper surface and grey-green on the undersurface. The leaflets have a roughly oval shape, a toothed edge, and a pointed tip. The top leaflet is the biggest one. All of the leaflets are attached to a common point, forming what is known as a palmate pattern. The plant is an evergreen.
The petioles (leaf stems) branch from the cane in an alternate arrangement and have fine prickles, which like the cane thorns often point backwards. The prickles on the petiole continue along the underside of the midrib of each leaflet. The plant is armed very well against any creature—including humans—that wants to attack it.
Himalayan Blackberry Identification
Canes in their second year of life produce flowers. The flowers have five white or pale pink petals and have both male and female reproductive structures. They are borne in clusters. Their stems have prickles, ensuring that picking the berry will be a very difficult task unless thick, protective gloves are worn. The "berries" are black or dark purple. Botanists don't classify the fruit as a berry, though. A blackberry or raspberry fruit consists of a group of drupelets. Each drupelet is an individual fruit and contains its own seed.
Although the Himalayan blackberry is often a nuisance when it's growing where it's not wanted, it's a popular plant with many people. The ripe blackberries are sweet, juicy, and delicious. People pick them to eat right off the bush or from a bowl at home. The berries are also collected to make desserts such as blackberry pies, tarts, and crumbles. (A crumble is a baked dish made from fruit topped with a crumbled mixture of oats, flour, butter, and sugar.)
Blackberry plants are appreciated by animals as well as humans. Birds, bears, coyotes, foxes, and squirrels feed on the berries. Bees use the nectar in the flowers to make a honey that is sold commercially.
Nutrients in Blackberries
Blackberries are worth picking. Like other berries, they are rich in nutrients. They could be bought in stores, but wild blackberries can be picked for free. Another advantage of eating wild blackberries is that picking the berries just before eating them ensures that they will contain the maximum concentration of nutrients.
The raw berries are an excellent source of vitamins C and K and a good source of vitamin E. They also provide us with a variety of B vitamins, including folate. In addition, they contain beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A.
Blackberries are rich in manganese and copper and provide a useful amount of magnesium, potassium, and other minerals. They also contain an interesting array of phytochemicals, or phytonutrients. These are chemicals which aren't essential for keeping us alive but are thought to help prevent disease.
An individual Himalayan blackberry plant lives for only two or three years. Young plants grow over the dead canes, producing a tangled thicket than can be hard to remove.
An Invasive Plant and a Noxious Weed
The Himalayan blackberry is considered to be native to Armenia and is sometimes called the Armenian blackberry. It was deliberately introduced to Europe in 1835 and to North America in 1885 for its fruit. It soon "escaped" into the wild via its seeds, which are eaten by birds and pass through their digestive systems unharmed. The plant has become invasive, growing and spreading rapidly. It's considered to be a noxious weed because it harms the environment.
The Himalayan blackberry may change the local ecosystem. It forms dense thickets which crowd out many native plants and prevent shade-intolerant plants from growing. The growth of the blackberry bushes can reduce the available land area for farming. The bushes may prevent plants with deep roots from growing in their normal habitat along riverbanks, resulting in erosion of the banks. Dead blackberry leaves change the composition of the leaf litter.
The prickly thickets prevent some animals from inhabiting the area and block their path to important places, such as water sources. Animals may be trapped or injured by large thorns on the canes. On the other hand, some animals can travel through the thickets, including rats and feral domestic rabbits.
Clearing Himalayan Blackberry Plants
The longer that Himalayan blackberry plants are left in an area, the harder they are to remove. It's much easier to remove young plants than mature ones.
How to Get Rid of Himalayan Blackberry Plants
Physical or mechanical methods can remove Himalayan blackberries, but hard manual work or machinery may be required. It's easiest to remove the plants while they are young and relatively weak. Frequently mowing the above-ground parts of the plants to destroy their leaves may eventually starve them. Digging deeply to remove all of the root can eliminate a blackberry bush. (The plant can grow from a piece of root or stem.)
Some herbicides can help to destroy the plants, but these mustn't be used in areas where people collect blackberries. Another problem is that herbicides may be harmful for the environment.
It's easy to monitor frequently visited areas like gardens and landscaped areas to check for the first appearance of a blackberry plant. In unmonitored areas, though, when blackberries are discovered they may have already formed a dense and impenetrable thicket. This situation requires determination and daily effort in order to remove the plants, but it can be done, as I know from experience.
A strong lopper that can cut through thick stems is an essential tool. Once the visible parts of the plants are removed, the roots must be dug out in order to have the best chance of a permanent solution. This can be backbreaking work if it's done by hand and the roots are large. When the land is cleared, it's important to watch for a resurgence from seeds or bits of roots and stems. A minor regrowth can be dealt with quickly. It would be sad to let a plant gain the upper hand again after all the hard work done to remove it.
An Ambivalent Attitude
Humans seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards Himalayan blackberries. Some people would hate the plants to disappear because they love the berries or the honey made from the berries. Other people hate the aggressive growth of the plant and the fact that it interferes with native plants and animals. Some people, like me, appreciate both sides of the debate. It's sad to see a wild area or a garden choked by blackberry plants, but the fruit is delicious.
The Himalayan blackberry is widespread in southwestern British Columbia. It has become such a common part of the landscape that many people are unaware that it's an introduced plant. I can’t help admiring the plant, not only for its delicious and bountiful fruit but also for the beauty of its fresh leaves, flowers, and berries. I have to admit that the dull green leaves of winter and the old, exposed canes are not attractive, however. Since the plant is common where I live and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future, I can continue to photograph its spring and summer beauty.
Questions & Answers
Are the Himalayan blackberry root tubers edible?
I collect Himalayan blackberry fruits to eat every year, but I’ve never considered eating any other part of the plant. In all my reading, I’ve never encountered any reference to someone eating the root (or the root tuber). Therefore I have to say no, the roots aren’t edible, simply because I don’t whether they are safe or dangerous.
Many plants have one part that is edible and another part that is unsafe to eat. The edibility and deliciousness of Himalayan blackberry fruits doesn’t mean that the roots are safe. Plants or parts of plants shouldn’t be eaten unless there is definite evidence that they are safe.
© 2012 Linda Crampton