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Wild blackberries have been enjoyed since prehistory. Their medicinal qualities were recognised during Antiquity, then, in the Middle Ages, they were used as a pigment in illuminated manuscripts. However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, blackberries were believed to cause ‘bad moods’. They are delicate and fragile, and are thus picked by hand, in autumn. Blackberries belong to the Rosaceae family and should not be confused with the fruit of the mulberry tree, a food source for silkworms.
© Shutterstock / Tim Ur

Out of favour in the 17th century

Blackberries originate in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, and grow in damp undergrowth. From prehistory, they spread across various regions and became part of the hunter-gatherers’ diet.

Both bilberries and blackberries have been appreciated for their medicinal properties since Antiquity. In the Middle Ages, they were used as a pigment for illuminations. Blackberry picking intensified until the 16th century, but gastronomy books from the beginning of the century declared the berry to be harmful to the stomach, causing ‘bad moods’. This preconception lasted throughout the 17th century, although blackberries were still eaten by the rural classes. It was not until the 18th century that the berry’s reputation was restored. Blackberries were then considered as a healthy, therapeutic foodstuff and became a cash crop. In England, blackberries were also used in the making of dyes for navy blue and indigo textiles (Hartley, 1962). 

Nowadays, although the fruit is sold in shops, blackberry picking remains a popular leisure activity, combining a gentle stroll with a chance to savour fresh berries.

Blackberry picking

Blackberry brambles often grow wild along country pathways and trails, and may easily be mistaken for hedges or bushes. Depending on the variety, these plants produce large, dark-coloured berries. The leaves, the young shoots, the flowers, and the bark of the roots are harvested in spring and used in the preparation of diuretic remedies.

In autumn, when the soft purple-black berries are ripe, they are easily pulled from the plant, but are particularly fragile and so must be harvested with care, picked by gloved hand. Blackberries are juicier when picked in the morning as they are gorged with dew.

Bramble or tree?

The blackberry belongs to the Rosaceae family. The plant is called a bramble and is made up of clinging lianas covered with thorns, which bunch together to form a bramble bush. The leaves have three to five leaflets. White or pale pink flowers appear when the plant blossoms, and, when mature, make way for the berries. These are made up of several small juicy drupelets, the colour of which ranges from black to yellowy white, depending on the variety. Blackberries are often eaten raw, but also enjoyed in coulis, ice cream, jam or jelly.

Blackberries must not be confused with the fruit of the mulberry tree, a member of the Moraceae family, grown for rearing silkworms which feed on its leaves.