Rubus Fairytales and a Shared Seattle Nemesis

When Sleeping Beauty, also known as Little Briar-Rose fell into an enchanted sleep on her fifteenth birthday, having pricked her finger on the foreordained spindle, a “thorn hedge” grew around the castle to protect her from the princes who heard of her beauty and, nevermind that she was unconscious, tried to force their way into the castle to see her. Alas, they couldn’t make it into the castle grounds, because “the thorns held firmly together, as though they had hands, and the young men became stuck in them, could not free themselves, and died miserably.”

Briar and bramble are both used to describe thickets of thorny bushes. They do evoke something of fairy tales for me, or of some long-past agrarian utopia that almost certainly never actually existed except in the minds of modern city-dwellers, but that would viscerally repel them were they ever to encounter it. Leaving behind the whimsey, bramble is another word for plants in the Rubus genus (part of the rose family, making the name “Briar-Rose” redundant). They are indeed thorny, some varieties viciously so. As in fairy tales, so too in the real world: whether the thorns help or harm depends on your perspective.

Were I Sleeping Beauty, I’d have been pleased to have a thorny thicket surrounding me and protecting me from princes intent on forcing their way in to see me while in a cursed sleep, and so too must the brambles be pleased by the protection offered by their own thorns — to live another day. Birds and bees, small enough to flit through what looks impenetrable to an adult human, also find protection here. The princes on the other hand, were probably none too pleased by their sharp and painful deaths, and nor am I when assaulted by the vines while working in the yard. Though I’ve never felt in mortal danger, more than once I’ve gone outside on a lunch break, become distracted by a patch of bramble, and gone back to work with a new cut on my cheek or my ear, grateful that I work from home and can put my camera on the other side during my next video call, my coworkers none the wiser.

Most people are familiar with rubus even if they don’t know it: raspberries and blackberries are commonly known examples. In the Pacific Northwest, there are a handful of ubiquitous rubus plants: blackberries, including the native trailing or Pacific blackberry, invasive Himalayan (not actually originating anywhere near the Himalayas) and cutleaf blackberries, as well as salmonberries and thimbleberries, both native. Most of us have eaten a Himalayan blackberry, or something that looks an awful lot like it, from the grocery store. Their exorbitant price ($7.99 for six ounces) is a bit ridiculous when taken in context of the extraordinary amount of effort and money that goes into removing these highly invasive plants. I felt better about it for a time (though I still couldn’t bring myself to buy them) once I started removing them from my land and learned the hard (sharp) way how vicious the thorns are, and imagined the effort that must go into harvesting them. This turns out not to be relevant though, thorns being a great motivator to develop a way to automate such a harvest: someone cleverer than me developed a machine that shakes whole rows of plants, releasing the berries. They’re mostly so expensive because of the complications of shipping something so soft that spoils so quickly.

The fruit of a Himalayan blackberry is big, dark, juicy, sweet. They taste like summer. They freeze well; a well-timed cobbler in the short days of January can make you forget the darkness for a moment or two. My multi-year efforts to remove them haven’t rid me of the ability to enjoy this. Eleven months of the year they may be my nemesis, but in September I celebrate with pie my perpetual failure to eradicate them all.

Native blackberry bushes are smaller and less inclined to take over (as native plants generally are). They are prickly, yes, but not dangerously so like the Himalayans — if you try to pull one bare-handed, you’ll wish you were wearing gloves, but you probably won’t draw blood. The berries are like the Himalayan berries in miniature, and with twice the punch when it comes to sweetness. They’re harder to come by too — unlike most rubus plants, trailing blackberries are dioecious, a word that just means some plants are male and others female, only the females ever flowering and bearing fruit. The observant wanderer can find in spring strands of white flowers trailing along the ground (as their name implies they might) or on their narrow, sometimes blue-tinted vines climbing a nearby shrub, and know where to return in midsummer for the berries.

Red huckleberries, another Pacific Northwest native, though not a rubus, fruits around the same time. These small, round, red, smooth-skinned berries look so much like salmon eggs that the indigenous people of this area used them for bait when fishing. Their tartness complements the sweetness of trailing blackberries perfectly, something the fish undoubtedly did not appreciate, but for which I am grateful.

Few people have ever eaten thimbleberries or salmonberries, though for different reasons. Both are something like raspberries, but the fruit of a thimbleberry is not as tall (think: flying saucer); while salmonberries match the shape of a raspberry almost exactly, they are, as their name suggests, salmon-colored. Thimbleberries are rarely eaten because they’re too fragile to transport — they’re a great snack to pick and eat as you walk, their leaves broad and flat, their stems entirely without the prickles that are used to identify their rubus cousins, but they’re not worth trying to bring home to share unless you want to make jelly. They’re too fragile and will turn into mush.

Players of the popular farming videogame Stardew Valley may have foraged and partaken in salmonberries in that virtual world; they’re the lowest value foraged food in the game, and in real life, they are indeed rather tart and dry, without a whole lot of flavor. They’re more nutritious than a lot of other local berries though, and they were commonly used by native people, both as food and for the medicinal properties in the leaves, which can be used to reduce labor pains or treat burns and open wounds.

Bernadette, of the 2012 novel (and subsequent 2019 film) Where’d You Go, Bernadette? had some hard lessons to learn about rubus too. Bernadette may be fictional, but she lives in Seattle and I’m sure something very much like this has happened. Comedy is only comedy if it’s relatable. More specifically, Bernadette’s down-the-hill neighbor Audrey learned the hard way that bare land doesn’t stay bare — something will grow back, or it will wash away. Audrey demanded Bernadette remove all the blackberry bushes on the hillside leading down to her own house, since the blackberry bushes kept crossing the property line, and she was tired of it. (If you ever need proof that property lines are fictional, just as country borders are, just ask the plants).

As someone who shares a fence with another just-let-the-blackberries-be person, I understand Audrey’s complaint, to a point. My neighbor even lost an RV in their blackberry patch at some point — I noticed it quite by accident one time when I stood up on a stump in my own yard to take a photo from a higher vantage point, and happened a look across the fence. I wonder sometimes if they still think about the RV stuck in that patch of brambles that threatens to usurp my orchard, if they even remember that it’s there.

The difference between me and Audrey is that I’ve never said anything about it to my fence-mate, I just eat the berries in late summer and hack the plants that hang over the fence back in fall. Anyway, after a contentious back-and-forth that involved at least one (unnecessary) trip to the emergency room, Bernadette did have all the blackberries removed — all at once, using a machine. The hill proceeded to slide right into Audrey’s house. Bare land doesn’t stay bare.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, “Dornröschen,” Kinder- und Hausmärchen, gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, (Göttingen: Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857), Translated by D. L. Ashliman

Semple, Maria, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Little, Brown and Company, 2012)

Stardew Valley Wiki, Salmonberry

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Guide: Salmonberry