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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: September 5, 2019

Janie Thibodeau Martin

Strangling Seattle



I love berries " cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, you name it. I am never so pleased with myself as I am when I find some new source of berries " and if it is a wild, uncultivated source, I am especially happy, like I imagine a hunter feels when he kills a big buck. So I snapped to attention when I noticed what looked like blackberry bushes, loaded with ripe berries, alongside the highway Mike and I were driving from Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle. We weren't really in a position to stop on a busy four-lane with our camping trailer. However, as we drew nearer to Seattle I saw more and more heavily-laden bushes (and commented each and every time, with Mike no doubt rolling his eyes,) I got excited thinking I'd be able to find a place to glean berries.

Sure enough, our campground within the city of Seattle was surrounded by a chain link fence being smothered by blackberry bushes which extended back into the brush as far as I could see. The ground under the fence was covered with over-ripe fallen berries. I immediately picked a quart of perfect berries and made blackberry sauce for shortcake. While I picked, I looked around the crowded campground and wondered why no one else was taking advantage of this bonanza.

Turns out, people in western Washington State have a love/hate relationship with their riotous blackberries; mostly hate and a month or two of some enjoying blackberries.

Turns out this plant had some help from someone besides Mother Nature. A man named Luther Burbank, a man considered eccentric and without formal training, who set out to breed new kinds of plants.

Among his creations were the Shasta daisy, beloved by gardeners; and the Burbank potato, which later begat the Russet Burbank " still the most widely grown potato in the U.S. But he had another idea, for a thornless blackberry. He traded seeds with people all around the globe, and in a package of seed from India (or possibly Armenia,) he found a blackberry which produced fruit that was large and sweet, plus it was incredibly prolific. So even though it still had thorns (and some mighty wicked ones, I can testify,) he offered seeds for "Himalayan Blackberries" to those who lived in mild climates, since it is not winter-hardy.

It was wildly popular, but the plants were unwilling to stay in their cultivated, desired locations. Birds spread the seeds far and wide, and the plants have spread like wildfire in the kind climate of the Pacific Northwest.

This "Himalayan blackberry" erodes soil and crowds out both native plants and some animals who cannot contend with its thorns. Frustrated property owners burn it, poison it, and hack it from the ground in usually unsuccessful attempts to eradicate it. It grows in wet and dry soils, in the deep woods and in full sun. The seeds live in the ground for years and the plants are able to spread by not only seeds; when the blackberry canes touch the ground, they can root themselves and turn into new plants. One source I saw said a single plant can spread 40 feet in one year.

Nearly every highway ditch and shoulder is covered with four foot high mats of blackberries. Impenetrable thickets line hillsides, climb up fences and buildings and overrun parks. While I was picking berries behind the dog park at the campground, I found a lovely blue plum on the ground. Looking up, I realized the berries I was picking were climbing and strangling out a mature plum tree. (It was covered with beautiful plums and yes, I managed to get a dozen of them by climbing part way up the tree, cursing the blackberry thorns that snagged my pants and scratched my arms.) There is no doubt in my mind that the plum tree, already obscured by blackberry canes half of its height, will eventually be killed by them.

When we toured a beautiful Japanese Garden there, I marveled at the layers of unusual flowers, shrubs and trees on its hillsides but then I began to notice the canes, just one here or there " but no doubt the blackberries were continually trying to establish a beachhead in the garden, and without the constant efforts of park workers and volunteers, they would soon destroy it.

Himalayan blackberries are delicious, but they are an invasive pest in Seattle. And prevailing wisdom is there is nothing that can be done to control or contain their ongoing spread until they hit a barrier created by winter weather. Think of it as Seattle's version of Kudzu, the green plant swallowing the south.

I was surprised during a visit to a Seattle grocery store when I noticed blackberries for sale. They were in half-pint plastic containers " big, beautiful berries like I'd been picking for free. They are so large each container only held a dozen or so. The price? $5 for two half-pints. So I was happy heading home with a big container of blackberry sauce in the trailer freezer.

I bet a whole lot of people wish Luther Burbank really had bred a thornless version of his blackberry before he started selling seeds for the berries which are now swallowing Seattle. Count me among them.



You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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