It's Blackberry time here in Kansas! It's Blackberry time here in Kansas!
There should be a song written to the wonders of blackberries here in the Flint Hills, a boisterous song to rouse the spirit and whet the palate. Many fruits are iffy in these dry, thinly-covered hills, but blackberries are usually not among them. The peach crop can be wiped out with an inopportune freeze, strawberries die with the droughts, the watermelons and cantaloupes survive only at the mercy of the squash bugs, and grapes can disappear overnight as the June Bugs arrive, but blackberries, oh blackberries, usually can be counted for a fresh, sweet beginning to the summer. Okay, maybe except for last year.
I grow a number of blackberries varieties, in theory, but I may be down to one or at most two varieties in reality. I originally began with a row of thornless 'Arapaho', 'Navaho', 'Black Satin', and 'Cherokee', but those original plants have dwindled with crown gall and I've moved suckers everywhere to grow in other areas, so it's entirely possible that I've ended up with only one of the original cultivars (probably 'Navaho', which seemed the most vigorous) and certainly no more than two of that group. This year I'm making a concerted effort to provide these thornless varieties some deep watering at intervals (economically, with soaker hoses), in an attempt to improve the number of canes and the harvest.
A couple of years ago, the University of Arkansas released some varieties that fruit on primocanes as well as the floricanes. Hoping to get two harvests each year of blackberries, I purchased three plants each of Prime-Jim, Prime-Jan (both 2 years old) and Prime-Ark 45 (a yearling) to try. Of the former two, Prime-Jim seems to be the better variety for the Flint Hills. It is a thorned variety, but the canes are stiff and erect, not trailing and grabbing at everything in sight like the old classic varieties. This year, my three Prime-Jim plants have many, many more berries than Prime-Jan, and they are ripening at a quick pace and all at one time. There are so many berries on Prime-Jim that I don't even care what the second harvest is like because the first out-does any other blackberry I've seen. Prime-Ark 45, which is said to be the best producer and have the largest berries, is not old enough yet for me to evaluate, and it has been at a disadvantage anyway, putting on most of its current growth during late summer of last year in the midst of a drought.
I suppose I should expect hybrid blackberries to do well in an environment where wild blackberries grow up everywhere that is not mowed, burned, or otherwise treated, but one can never be sure what evils man may have created during the "improvement process." Except for a little bacterial crown gall, blackberries are normally trouble-free for me. In fact, my only problem with blackberries is that I rarely harvest enough of them to use in jam or jelly. My family tends to eat them off the vine, unwashed, but oh so warm and sweet (the berries, not the family), as fast as they ripen on the canes. Blackberries stain us, and sustain us, until the main garden bounty comes with summer.