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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Small Fruits & Berries

Blackcap Brambles

by Lee Reich

Early in this century, black raspberries were just as popular as red raspberries. And no wonder! This jet black bramble, sometimes called a blackcap, has a rich, sweet taste. The berries are firm and not overly juicy. When you eat them fresh, their texture is a little thicker than red raspberries or blackberries. Their firmness also helps the fruit resist rotting better than other brambles, either on the plant or in your refrigerator.

Despite the black raspberry's past popularity and the fact that it will grow well from zone 4 south through zone 8, today the blackcap is mostly a regional favorite. The middle Atlantic region and Ohio are traditional hotbeds of black raspberry enthusiasm. There are a few commercial growers of black raspberries in the East, all with small plantings. The state that grows the most black raspberries is Oregon, with about 1,000 acres planted. Most of these berries are mechanically harvested for processing into jams, dessert flavorings and even a natural dye for meat. You may already enjoy black raspberries, but if you don't yet know them, you've got a real treat in store.

Return of a Native

The black raspberry is a native fruit, growing wild along the edges of woods from Quebec to North Dakota, and south to Arkansas and Georgia. The first variety, Ohio Everbearing (small and not very tasty), was named in 1832. By the end of the 19th century, thousands of acres of black raspberries were being planted in western New York alone. In his 1925 classic, The Small Fruits of New York, Ulysses Prentiss Hedrick described almost 200 varieties of black raspberry, most of them selections from the wild. Today, however, only a handful of black raspberry cultivars are readily available.

Although named varieties of black raspberries do differ from one another in fruit size, firmness and flavor, the differences are not all that great. Nor are named varieties very different from good wild ones, with one important exception. Wild black raspberries are very lely to carry diseases. Nurseries, on the other hand, work diligently to produce plants that are close to disease-free.

Here are some of the best named blackcap varieties available today. Expect to pick between three and four pints per plant over the 10- to 14-day ripening period. Blackcap harvest starts at the very end of the strawberry season and a few days earlier than the first red raspberries. You'll get to taste your first berries a year after planting.

'Allen'. Bred in New York in 1947 and named in 1963, it ripens in a concentrated period, so nearly all the fruit can be picked at once. Bristol is one of its parents.

'Blackhawk'. Bred in Iowa and introduced in 1953, it is one of the hardiest varieties available and ripens about five days later than most blackcaps.

'Bristol'. Bred in New York in 1921 and named in 1963, it has become the most widely planted blackcap in the East.

'Haut'. Bred in Maryland by Harry Swartz, currently the most active blackcap breeder, and released in 1984, Haut ripens three to five days later and has a longer picking season than most blackcaps.

'Jewel'. Bred in New York and named in 1973, it is slightly late in ripening and is one of the most disease-resistant varieties. Bristol is one of its parents.

'Munger'. Developed in Ohio and introduced in 1897, it is still the leading variety for machine harvesting in Oregon.

Among the varieties listed in 1925, quite a few were everbearing or bore white fruits. In years to come, look for both of these traits to be reintroduced. Also look for complex hybrids of black raspberries and various species of other raspberries and blackberries, including some that are tropical and Asiatic.

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