There are monsters in the Pacific Northwest. Massive and armed with daggers, they strangle their prey. And they are nearly impossible to kill. When you burn them, they regenerate. When you drown them, they resurface alive after forty days. When you hack them to pieces, they return bigger than ever. Poison is pointless—it slows them, but they build up a tolerance to it and come back stronger. They can reproduce sexually or asexually. They can clone themselves. Sometimes they seed the earth with embryos and, years later, babies erupt, thrumming with life.
Enterprising people brought these monsters to Oregon, planning to breed them and eat their offspring, but they have escaped from captivity and are fighting back, inflicting economic, environmental, and physical damage. These destructive beasts, known as blackberries, have strongholds on every continent except Antarctica, but they thrive in Oregon’s Mediterranean climate. Blackberries invade farms, forests, and rangelands; they increase the cost of road, park, and trail maintenance; and they suffocate native plants and forests. Even the experience of eating a blackberry can be like a surprise attack: a fresh-picked berry can be a delight of lush sweetness or it can be a tart assault, followed by the crunch of bitter seeds. From personal experience, I can tell you that contending with wild blackberries and their vicious curved thorns will leave you bleeding.
The most pernicious and prevalent blackberry, the Himalayan, was introduced to the Northwest in the 1880s by Luther Burbank, a California botanist and businessman also known as the “plant wizard.” Burbank named them Himalayan blackberries because he got them from a man in India, but they actually originated in Armenia (Rubus armeniacus).
As a child, Luther Burbank was shy and spent most of his time inventing things for his family. He once used a teapot to create a steam whistle “lunch bell” for the workers at his family’s brickyard; another time, he persuaded his father to dam a stream to improve the family’s cranberry bog and create a skating pond for Luther and his siblings on their farm in Massachusetts. Burbank did not plan to become a botanist, but he was forced to quit school when his father died, leaving the Burbank family struggling to make ends meet. He worked various jobs as he cast around for a vocation. On a visit to the local public library, he discovered Charles Darwin’s newly published works. He extrapolated from Darwin’s research that one might speed up and control the process of natural selection. He immediately invested his limited resources in seeds and a plot of land. He had some success with the creation of his first plant, the Russet Burbank potato. Burbank sold the Russet potato to a seed company and used the money to follow his brothers out to California.
Burbank loved California from the outset. He founded a nursery and an experimental garden and, over the next fifty years, developed over eight hundred new varieties of plants, including elephant garlic, the Santa Rosa plum, the Shasta daisy, the July Elberta peach, and Crimson Winter rhubarb. Burbank procured seeds and plants from all over the world; he cross-pollinated and hybridized and grafted and planted them in unusual environments. He would plant thousands of seeds to find one or two plants that exhibited desirable traits. From those one or two plants, he would then plant thousands of seeds until he had created a new and improved variety of plant. Sometimes he made changes just to see if he could: he created such anomalies as the white blackberry and the spineless cactus. More often, however, he was eyeing the marketplace, developing walnut trees that produced nuts more quickly or fruits that bruised less readily during transport.
Burbank was friends with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Andrew Carnegie. He officiated at parades and conferences and was lauded by the California Chamber of Commerce for his development of a perfect California prune. (The state now produces more than 40 percent of the world’s prune supply.) After Burbank’s death in 1926, Frida Kahlo, inspired by his at-home burial under a cedar tree, painted a posthumous portrait of Burbank emerging from his own corpse as a hybrid tree-man. Numerous schools and parks were named for him, including Luther Burbank Park in Mercer Island, Washington, which regularly hosts volunteer events to remove blackberries and replant native species.
Although he was a businessman who hobnobbed with some of the preeminent capitalists of his time, Luther Burbank had a spiritual ideology that leaned toward the countercultural. In his pamphlet Why I Am an Infidel, Burbank blasted the religious intolerance of “those who take refuge behind theological barbed wire fences,” and instead declaimed the power of science: “There is no personal salvation, there is no national salvation, except through science.” Burbank never had children, but he wrote passionate exhortations to abolish elementary schools and instead let kids spend time exploring the outdoors. The Hindu yogi Paramhansa Yogananda was a close friend of Burbank’s. Yogananda’s book Autobiography of a Yogi is dedicated to “Luther Burbank, An American Saint.” In it, the yogi relays a conversation in which Burbank freely admitted to talking with plants and building relationships with them, saying, “The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love.”
As successful as he was in his time, Burbank hasn’t fared so well in ours. Unlike Ford, Edison, Carnegie, and Kahlo, his name is not in high school history books. Some farmers and nursery catalogs still sing his praises, but there is also criticism. Burbank’s ideas about early childhood education were outlined in his book The Training of the Human Plant, which is primarily about eugenics. And in Why I Am an Infidel, Burbank left no doubt about his beliefs: “Will the growing intelligence of man (science) forever tolerate the wholesale production of the ever-increasing proportion of idiots, morons, Mongoloids, insane, criminal, weak, destitute, nervous, diseased half men and women who infest the earth to their sorrow and disgrace and perhaps to the ultimate destruction of our present state of civilization.”
Burbank is also associated with Big Agriculture. He is linked to the poster children of flavorless industrial food—the Russet Burbank, used in McDonald’s french fries, and the mild and mealy Delicious apple.
And then there is the Himalayan blackberry. It is almost with glee that noxious weed bulletins and articles about battling backyard blackberries point at Burbank for introducing these berries to the Pacific Northwest. Luther Burbank is the Dr. Frankenstein of this tale, unleashing a monster through hubris, thinking that he could control nature when he had such limited knowledge—he didn’t even know where these berries came from.
But maybe the blackberry’s tale is more like Terminator than Frankenstein: a group effort that went disastrously wrong. As Europeans colonized this land, they brought many plant invaders, including yellow toadflax, English ivy, garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, and kudzu, all of which have caused economic and environmental damage, with the highly aggressive kudzu even going so far as to disrupt the nitrogen cycle and cause ozone air pollution. Some of these plants were brought for agricultural or industrial cultivation, while others arrived accidentally mixed in with benign seeds. Luther Burbank may have marketed the Himalayan blackberry, but it’s likely that it had already arrived in pioneer wagons.
In Oregon, those pioneering blackberries have conquered at least 1.6 million acres of land. Every year, they inflict more than $40 million in damage. Unchecked, they may overrun 10 million acres and exact more than $1 billion in damage every year. The blackberry is the most destructive of the noxious plants in the Pacific Northwest, responsible for 48 percent of the invasive weed damage in Oregon. Yet the response to its invasion seems subdued. Although blackberries are classified as Class B noxious weeds, they are not on the target list for priority governmental action. In part this is because blackberries are no longer a good candidate for the favored weed control tactic: early detection, rapid response. But it does seem odd that a weed that causes more damage than any other in the state would not be considered a priority.
On a foggy morning, while looking out at some blackberry vines gathering for an attack, I opened an email from the Oregon Department of Forestry. It was bad news. My contact said that the strategies his department is successfully using to map and target other weeds don’t work on blackberries. He wished me luck, and I needed it.
I live in Clackamas County on nine acres of mixed forest and farmland, on which I am trying to establish a small fruit and hazelnut orchard. The previous landowners cunningly discovered that blackberries are an excellent way to hide garbage. My field is full of clustered blackberries, under which lurk old tires, bubble wrap, boxes full of packing peanuts, and other untold treasures.
Most of my neighbors deal with their blackberries by ignoring some clusters and spraying others with Roundup.
I don’t want to use chemicals, so I use a machete and a shovel and I mow, mow, and mow again just to keep the status quo.
I got the second email from the Forestry Department after battling long and hard with a single blackberry plant. I tried to dig down under its thick, woody root crown, but resorted to sawing at it and leaving a chunk burrowed in the ground, preparing to strike again. My source had more bad news, but he also had answers. He was blunt with me: “We will never be rid of blackberries.” Partly because they are just so good at coming in and taking over newly disturbed landscapes, and partly (here’s the cloak-and-dagger part) because we are not willing to use the one weapon that can truly kill them: biological controls.
Australia, with more than 20 million acres of blackberry-infested land, is fighting back with biocontrols. In the 1990s, they started releasing a virus called rust among the blackberries. According to a presentation titled “Biological Control of European Blackberry,” posted on the Victorian Blackberry Taskforce’s website, rust attacks the blackberries’ leaves, causing them to erupt in orange and black pustules; this leads to “defoliation and fruit abortion.” Australia is currently testing out several other varieties of rust, and a promising disease called purple blotch. Biocontrols don’t eradicate blackberries, but, in combination with mechanical controls, Australia is using them to force the plants into retreat.
Australia does not, however, grow and market many blackberries. Oregon does. Oregon farmers grow 35–45 million pounds of blackberries each year. Although Oregon is the number one US producer of blackberries for the frozen food industry, the majority of the blackberry harvest is consumed fresh here in the state. Oregonians are proud of their berries. Each summer, blackberries star in Oregon cuisine and festivals. The official state pie is marionberry, a blackberry cultivar developed at Oregon State University. A recent segment on NPR’s All Things Considered was about Oregonians’ love of blackberries; it started with the lead, “Ask an Oregonian what summer tastes like—they will likely say blackberries.” Releasing biological controls on the wild Himalayans would threaten the flavor of summer in Oregon.
Out there in my field, battling my blackberries, it was natural to wonder who was responsible. I pictured some bumbling businessman who thought he could get rich quick and instead went bankrupt, leaving the blackberries to fend for themselves. And, at first glance, there he was: Luther Burbank. But in any good monster movie, when you think the threat is resolved, it isn’t. If Burbank hadn’t marketed blackberries, someone else would have. Maybe the blackberry’s story is more like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The sweet star of our summer pies has a dark and wild doppelgänger, and to rid ourselves of one is to strike a mortal blow at the other.
1 comments have been posted.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this informative article. I first learned about Himalayan blackberries about a year ago, initially awed at the large size of the flowers and berries. I didn't realize then how invasive and pervasive the plants are. I'd say "shame on Luther Burbank," but like with so many things in life, it's often not until years later that the "real" costs and benefits become apparent.
Gerri Almand | April 2023 | Eugene, Oregon