Blackberry’s deeply rooted history ends with an ironic twist
Acouple of weeks ago in this space, I wrote about the wild blackberry harvest. As I wrote, it seemed strange to me that the briar that gives the best berries is officially considered an undesirable weed here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s an exotic import, the Himalaya blackberry, and grows so fast that it destroys slower, gentler, native plants.
How did it get here, I thought. Well, I can now tell you, with help from the person who actually got it settled in the New World. It’s an interesting story and it ends with an ironic twist.
The plant arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the form of seeds, gathered in India and sent to 204 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, California. This would have been in the early 1880s.
The householder at 204 was Luther Burbank, a highly gifted and awesomely industrious plant breeder. He was an oldfashioned kind of genius, relatively unschooled but with a natural talent for judging the potential of plants and creating more productive varieties. The russet potato was his first triumph. Also the freestone peach. And the Shasta daisy.
Late in life, Burbank wrote down all he knew in Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application — 40 years of work in 10 volumes. The Himalaya introduction is described in Vol. 6, which is all about berries.
Burbank writes that the seeds were sent to him as part of a plant exchange program. It was his experience that simply moving a plant from one part of the world to another often gave it new energy. He cites a Japanese plum and winter rhubarb from New Zealand as earlier successes, and the new blackberry reacted the same way.
Among the second generation of seedlings that he grew from the Indian seed was “an individual that showed a very marked improvement over its parents.”
A photograph in the book shows “Mr. Burbank at work.” There he is, dressed entirely in black. He could be an undertaker except for his hat, a broad-rimmed, high-crowned Stetson-like creation that only a genius should be allowed to wear. Burbank was good-looking; he reminds me of Danny Kaye. In the photo, he bends over trays of seedlings, “second-generation hybrids of thornless and Himalaya blackberries.”
His work was to examine every one of hundreds of seedlings looking for significant improvement. The search was always goal-oriented; here, he was attempting to create a version of the Himalaya that would be free of thorns.
Today, plant breeders can patent their work and profit from it. Burbank didn’t have that protection. As well as being a researcher, he also had to be a producer of seed — or seedlings — that he sold directly to growers or to nurserymen.
By 1885, he had decided that the blackberry from India would succeed in North America. He gave it an exciting name — Himalaya — and sent out a circular. He writes that initial sales were slow — reminding us that it always takes time for a newly introduced plant to prove itself to growers. In this case, he waited 10 years. Then the Himalaya suddenly took off, first on the Pacific Coast, then in the northern and central states, and quickly became the blackberry of choice for commercial producers. He had difficulty growing them fast enough to meet demand.
So that’s the happy part of the Himalaya story. The not-so-happy part is that it’s a vigorous, highly invasive bush that makes enemies when it jumps a fence or pops up on waste ground, seeded by birds.
Here comes the ironic ending. On Mercer Island, which is part of Greater Seattle, is a 31-hectare park named after Luther Burbank. A large area has been left undeveloped so as to preserve native wildlife and plants.
But, alas, a recent report (mercergov.org) tells us that much of Luther Burbank Park’s delicate native vegetation is being choked out by Himalaya blackberry bushes.