The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Blackberry Picking

By Mary A. Summerline © 1992

Issue: June, 1992

I was recently reminded of the effort involved in picking blackberries when the fruit on some vines in our backyard became ripe. These were vines that had sprung up in a thicket of wild plum trees, probably getting their start from seeds carried there by birds. In previous years they had been cut down by the lawn mower before they could flower, but this year we had allowed them to mature.

Early one June morning before breakfast, I had donned a long sleeve shirt, slacks, boots, straw hat and gloves, sprayed my clothing with insect repellent, and walked the thirty feet or so from our air-conditioned kitchen to the blackberry patch. There I managed to pick about a quart of berries, probably enough for a pie, but I chose to stew them and serve them with biscuits. My husband, Leon, and I enjoyed them, but the yield seemed small for an hour and half of picking.

I recalled the berries we picked when I was a child growing up in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. My mother and father had lived there all their lives, and were accustomed to using wild berries, nuts, greens and other fruits. They could usually tell when crops would be plentiful, and where to find them.

I was the fifth of seven children, so by the time I was old enough to be much help in berry picking, some older sisters and brothers had married and left home. Mom liked to take me with her because my eyesight was pretty good, and I could watch for snakes.

Mom seldom wore slacks, but she would borrow Daddy's overalls, and I'd wear my brother Johnny' s overalls. We'd put on our sturdiest shoes, long sleeved shirts, and straw hats. Occasionally we'd get a ride to the vicinity of the berry vines, but usually we walked, sometimes four or five miles round trip.

We carried as many buckets and containers as possible, depending upon the number of people in our group, and upon whether we were walking or had a ride. The yield varied from year to year. A review of entries in my 1949 diary indicates that I helped pick 8 gallons on July 20, and 2 gallons on August 9. Other family members picked 9 gallons on July 25, 1 1/2 gallons on August 1, and 2 1/2 gallons on August 4. Mom usually canned those berries, or made them into delicious pies or my favorite, blackberry jam!

Snakes were always a concern, but one of my most memorable experiences occurred in later years, when Leon, our daughter Mary Ann, and I were picking berries on a roadside in a Maryland park. Mary Ann and I were busy at the road, but Leon had gone deep into the thicket. Things were pretty quiet for a while. Then suddenly I saw Leon toss his bucket of berries in the air and make a quick exit. He said afterwards that he had reached to pick a berry, only to discover that the "berry" was the eyes of a snake that was lying on a vine.

A similar incident occurred in North Carolina when Leon and I were picking blackberries beside a country road. The vines were growing in a low, wet ditch. We picked for about a half hour before Leon realized that he had been standing next to a water moccasin, the biggest he had ever seen. Needless to say he made a careful but hasty exit. Now when we pass that place we leave the berries undisturbed!

Unfortunately it seems that the wild blackberry vines are becoming more scarce or inaccessible. Much of the land once roamed has been developed for housing or commercial use, or bears "Posted" signs. Many roadsides are mowed or sprayed with chemicals.

Perhaps I should put away the mower, and allow our little patch of blackberries to remain there.