Food & Drink

Thorny or thornless, blackberries are delicious

These freshly picked wild blackberries can hold their own against cultivated berries, but it's getting harder to find wild ones.
These freshly picked wild blackberries can hold their own against cultivated berries, but it's getting harder to find wild ones.

When I was growing up in rural Clark County, we picked wild blackberries.

I remember that most of the ones we ate straight from the briar were sweet, with an occasional berry being so tart it would make your eyes squint and your mouth pucker.

Now, many wild blackberry patches have been bulldozed to make way for housing or wider roads, and many of the blackberries we buy at farmers markets are cultivated and grown on trellises for easier picking.

Having come out of a blackberry patch with scratches and chiggers, I find the idea of picking berries from a thornless cane appealing. But what about taste?

Some people say wild blackberries have much more flavor, but there's also the common perception that cultivated thorny blackberries taste better than thornless.

"A lot of that is based on the early release of thornless that tended to be fairly tart," horticulturist John Strang said.

Strang, extension fruit and vegetable specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, works with growers to develop hardier plants that produce larger and sweeter fruit. Last week, Strang conducted an informal taste test with five varieties of thorny and thornless blackberries grown on farms in Lexington and Princeton.

The varieties, which were ranked according to sweetness and flavor, were: Apache, thornless erect; Kiowa, thorny; Chester, thornless semi-erect; Triple Crown, thornless semi-erect, and Chickasaw, thorny.

"Evaluations ranged from 1 to 5 between different tasters for most varieties. It looks like we can't say that thornless or thorny blackberries are the best tasting, as there isn't much difference" between the rankings, Strang said.

The average score for sweetness and flavor were: Apache, 3.4, Kiowa, 3.3, Chester, 3.1, Triple Crown, 2.9, and Chickasaw, 2.7.

Taste testers were surprised that berries from the same plant could range from very sweet to very tart.

"The weather is a big factor, and also where the berry is located on the plant. It's typically photo synthesis. Sugars go to berries closest to the leaves. Leaves that have better sunlight exposure have higher sugar content," Strang said.

Lots of rainfall will produce bigger berries, but it also can dilute the sugars.

The tasting revealed: You'll never know how sweet or tart the blackberry is until you pop it into your mouth.