What’s a Bramble? Plus, the Best Ones to Grow in Your Backyard

These easy-to-grow plants will make a sweet addition to your garden.

<p>Kritsada Panichgul</p>

Kritsada Panichgul

Although some folks call any thorny bush a bramble, the term more correctly refers to members of the rose family belonging to the genus Rubus such as raspberries and blackberries. These shrubby plants sport arching stems typically armed with sharp prickles or even sharper thorns. Most bear fruit that is savored by wildlife and humans alike. Brambles often grow wild and may appear unwanted in your yard; left to their own devices, they can become a nuisance. Cultivated selections, however, make great choices for backyard gardens. Their flavorful fruit, which is highly perishable and quite expensive at the grocery, is actually pretty easy to grow at home.

How Do Brambles Grow

The typical growth cycle for brambles is quite interesting, and once understood makes pruning easy. Plants have perennial roots and crowns, but biennial stems (called canes). They develop new canes each year. In the first year, they are called primocanes, and they grow vegetatively. The following season they become fruiting canes (floricanes). After fruiting, they die. During the dormant season, old floricanes should be removed (the remains of their fruiting stems are easily identified). This is important so that there is room for new canes to grow and to prevent a tangled mess.

New primocanes develop each year, so once your berries start producing (their second year) you will get a crop from second-year canes every year. Most bramble plantings are productive for five to eight years or so.

Recently, primocane fruiting blackberries and raspberries have hit the market. These brambles produce their fruit on first-year canes. This means that folks who live in regions where canes are often killed by cold temperatures can still produce a crop on their first-year canes. The canes can be mowed down in winter, making pruning a snap.

A distinguishing feature of blackberries and raspberries involves the central portion of their fruit called the receptacle. When you pick a blackberry, the receptacle remains attached to the fruit. The receptacles of raspberries, on the other hand, detach from the fruit and remain on the stem, giving the fruit a hollowed center.

Tips for Trellising Brambles

Although erect types can be grown as a hedge, most blackberries and raspberries benefit from some sort of trellis or support system. An easy system is a T trellis. This is constructed by sinking a post at each end of your berry row and securing a four-foot board on top of each to form a T. The cross board should be about three or four feet above the soil. Run heavy gauge wire from the ends of each cross board so you have two parallel lines about four feet apart high on either side of your berries. The canes will grow and arch over the wires keeping them upright. Contain the spread of your berry patch by mowing canes that come up outside the trellis area.

The Best Brambles to Grow in Your Garden

Blackberries and raspberries are the most common brambles and the best choice for backyard gardens. The tayberry is a cross between blackberries and raspberries. Less common brambles include thimbleberry, dewberry, and boysenberry; these are most often grown in the Pacific Northwest. All grow similarly. They do best in full sun (although they’ll put up with a little shade) and well-drained soil. Add organic matter to the soil when planting and mulch every year with compost or other organic mulch.

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1. Blackberries

Blackberries can be erect or trailing, thorny or thornless. Thornless blackberries seem the obvious choice: they produce delicious fruit without attacking you with those nasty thorns. Thornless types tend to be a bit more sensitive to cold temperatures, and they usually develop long, trailing canes that definitely need support. Still, it’s worth constructing a trellis to be able to harvest the fruit without blood being drawn. If you go foraging for wild blackberries, be prepared to deal with thorns.

A few excellent varieties of thornless blackberry are ‘Triple Crown’, ‘Chester’, and ‘Natchez’. If you're a masochist who prefers a thorny type, ‘Shawnee’ is hard to beat for production and flavor. For primocane selections, try Prim-Ark 45, or Prime Ark Freedom.

2. Raspberries

In addition to the well-known red raspberry, there are also black, purple, and gold raspberry selections. Red raspberries can grow in the typical biennial cane habit, producing one crop of fruit between late June and August—or they can be primocane types (sometimes called everbearing). Everbearing varieties produce a crop on the current season’s growth (primocanes) from late summer to fall. A second crop can develop on these same canes the following spring. However, because canes are often pruned to the ground each winter, the spring crop is eliminated, but this results in a larger fall crop.

Good choices for red raspberries include ‘Heritage’, ‘Caroline’ and ‘Crimson Treasure’. For primocane types, try ‘Joan J’ and ‘Nantahala’.

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Black and purple raspberries usually grow in a tighter clump than red raspberries because their canes develop from the crown of each plant rather than suckering from the roots. This habit allows you to tie the canes of each plant to a single central stake. Gold raspberries are less common but are growing in popularity.

‘Brandywine’ is a vigorous purple selection. ‘Bristol’ and ‘Jewel’ are excellent black raspberry choices. The everbearing ‘Anne’ and ‘Fall Gold’ produce beautiful golden fruit.