The official tree of B.C. is the dogwood. The dogwood is a nice tree. I’ve got nothing against it. As a matter of fact, I’ve got two of them in my front yard. They’ve got beautiful white flowers in the spring and a dense canopy of leaves in the summer. However, the official plant of B.C. should be the blackberry. It’s flowers aren’t as big as the dogwoods and the plant is really a vine. That’s probably why it’s not the official B.C. plant. People have a prejudice about vines. Maybe if we called it rubus discolor, it’s latin name, people would treat it with more respect.
The blackberry is ubiquitous. I never head the word ubiquitous until I moved to Victoria. People in Manitoba and Missouri don’t use words like that. U-bi-qui-tous. It takes a lot of saying. It means something is everywhere you look. That’s the blackberry. Leave a back corner uncut for a few weeks and there’ll be the vines shooting up. It grows through and around anything. It winds its way through hedges and over stone walls. It sneaks into gardens.
If you ignore it, it takes over. Pretty soon you’ve got mounds of blackberry vines. They spring from the ground. When they get to around six feet, they bend under their own weight. An old blackberry patch has nothing growing in it but blackberries. They close out all the light and the vines spread out like the water from a fountain. The thickets are impenetrable.
No one forgets his first encounter with blackberries. They usually involve short sleeves and grasping the stems to pull them down or trying to reach into a particular cluster of dark berries. When you withdraw your arm, it looks like it’s been attacked by a dozen angry cats. When I go picking blackberries, no matter how warm the day, I put on a heavy long sleeved shirt, blue jeans, and boots. Once, I even cut the fingers out of an old pair of leather gloves. I wore those for getting at a patch on steep slope.
You can tell experienced pickers. In one hand they have a small bucket. In the other hand they have a long stick with a bent nail in the end. They use the stick to pull down the canes. I’ve discovered that if you have a bucket with a metal handle, one of those ice cream buckets works fine, you can loop it over you left forearm, hold the stick with your left hand and pick with your right.
Blackberries, for those who aren’t fortunate enough to have them where you live, are like large black raspberries. You can fill a bucket pretty fast. The only danger, besides the thorns, are the wasps. It’s a good idea to be able to see the berry you’re going to pull off the vine. Some summers there seem to be more wasps than berries. If there are, then take a piece of ham or salami or a scrap of salmon skin left from a barbecue. The wasps will give up berries any day for meat. It helps if the meat is a bit stinky.
When I get the berries home, I eat some with ice cream. Then I freeze some. I used to freeze them all at once in a bag. Then someone showed me to freeze them on cookie trays and pour them into a bag. That way when I want them for pies or puddings, I can pour out four cups. Some I make into jelly.
I didn’t think I knew how to make jelly. Or, I thought I’d forgotten how. When I was a kid, I used to go picking wild raspberries with my mother. We’d go on our bikes and pick until our carriers couldn’t hold anymore. Then we’d take them home and clean them and cook them and make jelly. It was a long time ago. But it’s amazing how we remember things and don’t know it until we go to do the task.
The first time I brought three buckets of blackberries home, I did the eating and the freezing okay but I hesitated about the jelly making. Then, I went and picked some green apples off my tree. I cooked them with the berries. I got a clean pillow case. I set a large glass bowl on the floor. I got some string and tied it to the back rail of a wooden chair. I poured the juice and pulp into the bag, tied it tight at the neck and hung it from the back of the chair.
The next morning, I dug out a recipe for jelly. It said not to use an aluminum pot. kI needed a good steel pot anyway so I went to Sears. They had a handsome one with a heavy bottom on sale. I bought it because it said “Never burns your jelly.” I cooked up the first batch. While that was happening, I boiled water and sterilized jars and lids. I melted the wax in one of my good pots. I’ll never do that again. Itt was nearly impossible to get it off the surface when I was finished. Now, I put the wax into a washed tin can, then put the can in a pot of water. First, though, I squeeze one side of the can to make a sort of spout.
There’s tricks to getting jelly into jars. You’ve got to have a steady hand and a good aim. The trickiest part is when you stop pouring. That’s when I most often get jelly on the side of the jar. Also, you’ve got to fill the jars full enough. This is especially true with jars I’ve saved after emptying them of pickles or relishes. They often have a top that is narrower than the rest of the jar. If the jelly doesn’t come up past the narrow part, the wax hunkers down below the bend and getting it out requires force and sometimes swearing. It also means breaking up the wax and getting bits of wax on your toast.
If you come to the Island late to mid summer, bring a long shirt and an old pair of jeans. You’ll find berries everywhere there’s a bit of scrub land. They’ll hang over back fences, dangle out of trees, beckon from roadsides. Help yourself. After you’ve eaten your fill, take time out to look at the dogwoods. They’re nice looking all right but come a rainy December morning, with the smell of toast and coffee in the air, with blackberry jelly glowing in a jar, the lowly vine gets my vote for best plant in BC.