University of Arkansas Advancements Sweeten Summer Fruit
I grew up being allowed to roam free in rural Arkansas forests in the summer. The woods were a bountiful place, and where there were breaks in the glade, you could find blackberry vines in thick tangles, stretching for yards along the edges of ditches or old lumber roads.
Come June, those vines would be covered in berries, slowly turning green to red to dark purple. When enough berries had darkened, long sleeves were put on, Vaseline was rubbed around ankles and wrists, socks were tucked into pants, and broad hats were donned. Pickle buckets were taken to the brambles, and I’d wade in, using my feet to press down vines from waist high underfoot, so I could get into where berries had not yet been reached by the deer.
I know some folks used gloves, but I’d be in there with my bare hands, gently cupping each berry as I pulled, leaving behind the ones that didn’t immediately fall into my palm, because those weren’t ready yet. There would be those that popped their drupelets at first touch. There were always thorns, so I worked slowly to keep from pulling tracks across my skin. By the time I reached my first half-a-bucket, there would be bits of thorny vine in my clothes and hair.
Some days, I brought a transistor radio, left on the flat away from the vine, tossing tinny tunes into the air and providing rhythm as I picked. Or I’d work at my own pace, grasping as many berries into the palm of my hand as I could before I pulled my arm out and let them thunk into the bucket. I never got more than 2 gallons in before I had to break away, walk out and reassess. Blackberry picking was hard work.
At day’s end, berries would be carefully washed, gently shaken with water over the top, leaves discarded, green berries plucked out, good berries scooped into a waiting strainer over a bowl. Most would go into square Tupperware and be placed into the freezer. Some days, they might go straight to a pot to be boiled down into jelly or jam. Whatever was left over was served with Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk, consumed after the usual lye soap bath to ensure the ticks and chiggers were off. Sitting in a loose T-shirt and shorts, near the window air conditioner, hair still wet, the berries in the milk were such a sweet and wonderful treat.
At most, those wild berries were the size of the end joint of your thumb and full of seeds, and that’s if you got to them before deer and other critters. I could not have imagined that day, being able to pick blackberries without thorns, or finding berries bigger than my thumb. But they exist, thanks to the University of Arkansas.
For decades, researchers at the university’s Fruit Research Station in Clarksville have created new cultivars of blackberries, such as the sweet Cherokee in 1974. While this variety still had thorns, its berries were juicier and sweeter than their wild cousins. Blackberries produced in those early years were still floricane, meaning the vines had to have grown the year before and wintered before producing the next. In 2004, new varieties such as Prime-Jim and Prime-Jan were released — primocanes that could be planted and produce berries in the same year.
Over time, the berries were produced to be larger with bigger yields. Thornless varieties were cultivated and patented. Today, you’ll find cultivars such as the Prime-Ark Traveler, a thornless primocane blackberry that’s larger than a quarter, easy to pick and rather sweet. Farmers across the state, and even as far away as South America, are growing these delectable drupelets, sometimes on new-fangled setups where entire rows of blackberries can be pulled gently to the ground to be covered when late frosts come into the forecast. These varieties can often produce a second crop, popping up flowers in late summer for another round of berries before the first frost of fall.
Still, there are roadside patches and brambles at woods’ edges where you’ll discover berries growing wild across Arkansas. I have picked alongside highways in Faulkner County, in backwoods near Alread and under the U.S. 82 bridge outside of Lake Village. Purple smears on the palm after harvesting the berries always means something delectable, whether it’s tucking fresh berries into a cobbler or pie, making jam to spread on biscuits, or just plucking them from a bush while out hiking. They are tart yet sweet reminders of all of Arkansas’ natural bounty.