On a late
spring day the blackberries are just starting to change
color and, when they turn midnight black, it's time to
start picking and perhaps get the kitchen ready to put
together a fresh blackberry cobbler. Or maybe it's time
to just eat some berries fresh off the plants. In years
gone by and even today many people "can" the berries
whole for use throughout the year. It's not hard to
think of the many excellent ways to use blackberries.
Wild blackberries can be found on many farms and ranches
in Texas. They love deep sandy soil and are usually
found growing in moist areas near a creek, spring or
seep. The wild berries are not very erect and tend to be
trailing. With time they may form a thicket. The
cultivated blackberries are more erect and generally
have larger stems, which are called canes. Wild
blackberries have been the source of many a tasty
blackberry pie or cobbler in late spring. The wild
berries are small and it takes quite a few to make any
kind of sweet dessert, but they are still mighty good.
Today with all the hybrid varieties that have been
developed by plant breeders, we have very large
blackberries that produce heavily. The cultivated
varieties of blackberries are well-adapted to most areas
of Texas and are fairly easy to grow in home gardens.
Variety selection is important for home production as
some of the varieties do much better in one area than
they do in another.
Scientifically, blackberries belong to the Rosaceae
family, genus Rubus, subgenus Eubatus.
They are also called bramble fruit. There are more than
400 species of blackberries in North America with the
cultivated varieties grown in Texas being hybrids. The
types of blackberries are generally grouped according to
their growth habit, either trailing or erect. Trailing
blackberries that grow on brush or shrubs in the wild
are called dewberries. Cultivated forms of trailing
types are boysenberries and youngberries. The major
cultivated varieties are grouped as erect blackberries.
The fruit clusters of the trailing types are open and
not very numerous. The erect types have tighter clusters
that are numerous and usually ripen later than the
trailing types. Most cultivated varieties bear thorns,
but in recent years thornless varieties have been
developed that have become very popular.
Blackberries are perennial plants that grow canes in
two-year cycles (biennial). The first year the new
canes, called primocanes, grow vigorously but do not
produce any flowers. The second year the same canes,
called floricanes, do not grow any longer but produce
flowering laterals with small leaves. The white-to-pale
pink flowers are produced on the tips of the flowering
laterals. The fruit are actually a collection of
numerous drupelets which form the "berry." The drupelets
form around ovules that are fertilized by pollen that is
moved by insects, particularly honeybees. The floricanes
die back after the berries are produced and are replaced
by new primocanes.
All these erect thorned varieties have 'Brazos' in their
heritage. It was developed here in Texas and has been
the standard for blackberry production in Texas for
'Brazos.' Developed at Texas A&M University and
introduced in 1959, 'Brazos' has been the Texas standard
for years and is still a great variety. The berries are
large and the plants produce heavily. Probably the most
widely adapted blackberry in Texas and recommended for
most of Texas, this variety starts ripening early, May
15 to May 30 depending on your location. 'Brazos' has
good disease tolerance. It is interesting that 'Brazos'
has some raspberry and wild dewberry in its heritage.
The berries are a little acid and are better for cooking
and canning than fresh eating. This variety has more
thorny plants and larger seeded fruit than many of the
'Rosborough.' Another Texas A&M introduction that
was released in 1977, 'Rosborough' is similar to
'Brazos' but the berries are firmer, sweeter and it has
smaller seed than 'Brazos.' 'Rosborough' ripens about
the same time as 'Brazos,' and is intended as a
companion or replacement for 'Brazos.' A good early
variety for east and south-central Texas, 'Rosborough'
is not recommended for northwest Texas because of low
winter temperatures. The flower petals are lavender
instead of the normal white.
'Womack.' Released in 1977 by Texas A&M, this is
the smallest of the A&M releases but still a nice size.
It is firmer and better quality with smaller seed than
'Brazos.' The flower petals are lavender. 'Womack'
ripens at the same time as 'Brazos,' and is recommended
for west-central and north Texas in sandy areas. It's
not recommended for southeast Texas or northwest Texas.
'Cheyenne.' Released by the University of
Arkansas in 1977, 'Cheyenne' has very large fruit that
are sweet and have a slight raspberry flavor. 'Cheyenne'
ripens about June 8, and is recommended for east Texas.
It is resistant to orange rust and tolerant to several
'Chickasaw.' Released by the University of
Arkansas in 1998, Chickasaw is comparable to 'Shawnee'
but has better storage and handling qualities and high
yielding plants. This variety is recommended on a trial
basis only because the area of adaptation has not been
'Choctaw.' A 1989 release of the University of
Arkansas. The medium sized fruit are somewhat soft, and
storage and handling is sometimes a problem. The
outstanding quality of this berry is its very early
ripening time. This variety has a 300-400 hour winter
chilling requirement. 'Choctaw' is hardy to -14 degrees
F. and is a good candidate for the Panhandle.
'Brison.' Released by Texas A&M in 1977, 'Brison'
has berries that are firmer, sweeter and with smaller
seed than 'Brazos.' A very early ripening blackberry, it
ripens about a week before 'Brazos.' Production is equal
to or slightly better than 'Brazos.' 'Brison' is
recommended for south-central Texas on blackland clay
soils. The low chilling requirement precludes this being
a good choice for far north Texas. It's not recommended
for southeast Texas because of fungal diseases.
'Shawnee.' Released by the University of Arkansas
in 1983, this variety has a long ripening season. The
berries are medium to large in size, are somewhat soft
and do not ship or store well. The plants are highly
productive. 'Shawnee' ripens about a week later than
'Cheyenne,' and is susceptible to double blossom
'Kiowa.' This, the last of our thorned variety
recommendations, is one of the best. 'Kiowa' was
released from the breeding program of the University of
Arkansas in 1995. The fruit of 'Kiowa' are the largest
of the varieties listed here and are at least 1/4 bigger
than `Brazos.' These berries are six to eight times the
size of wild blackberries. The berries weigh an average
of 10 grams with a blocky oblong shape. The fruit is
firmer than `Shawnee' and stores and ships well. The
fruit starts ripening about three days after `Shawnee,'
about June 4 in central Texas. `Kiowa' is recommended
for east, north and central Texas, but is not
recommended for northwest Texas.
These erect thornless varieties can all trace their
heritage back to the varieties 'Merton Thornless' from
England and 'Thornfree' from the USDA breeding program.
All are patented releases of the University of Arkansas
'Apache.' Released in 1999, this is the largest
fruited and highest yielding of the University of
Arkansas thornless releases. The fruit are medium-large
and ripen in early July in central Texas, late in
comparison to the thorned varieties. The sweet berries
are firm and handle well, and the plants are very erect.
Recommended especially for northeast Texas but adapted
to other areas.
'Arapaho.' Released in 1993, this is the
earliest-ripening of the thornless blackberries. The
medium-sized fruit ripen in the latter part of May to
early June in central Texas. Not a high yielding
variety, it yields about 60 percent the fruit of
'Shawnee.' The fruit are very sweet with small seed
size, and 'Arapaho' is one of the best tasting
blackberries. It is resistant to double blossom and
'Navaho.' Released in 1988, this variety has
medium sized fruit with high sugar content. A moderate
yielding variety, 'Navaho' yields about 3/4 of the
production of 'Shawnee.' It has a ripening season of
about four weeks. With a high chilling requirement of
about 800-900 hours, it is only recommended for north
and northwest Texas. 'Navaho' is hardy to -14 degrees F.
It is difficult to establish from root cuttings but
grows vigorously when it does get established.
'Ouachita.' One of the newest thornless varieties
released in 2003, the fruit are sweet, large and have
good storage and handling qualities. Starts ripening
about June 10 and continues for about 5 weeks.
Production and size of fruit are comparable to 'Apache.'
'Ouachita' has a chilling requirement of about 300-500
hours, making it a good trial variety for central and
'Natchez.' Released in 2007, with large, firm
berries on a plant with high yields, 'Natchez' yields
twice as many berries as 'Arapaho.' 'Natchez' ripens
early, about June 1, and seems to have good disease
Primocane Fruiting Varieties
The University of Arkansas in 2004 released the
varieties 'Prime-Jim' and 'Prime-Jane,' new primocane
fruiting blackberries. These varieties fruit on the
first year primocanes. Unfortunately, they have not done
well in Texas.
Growing blackberries is fairly easy but does involve
some setup work and other considerations for best
Soil. Blackberries grow best in deep sandy soil,
but any well-drained soil will work if the pH is in the
range of 4.5 to 7.5. If your soil does not drain well,
try growing the berries in raised beds.
Climate. The best climate for our southern
blackberry varieties is anywhere in USDA cold hardiness
zones 7 to 9, which includes most of our state.
Water. Rainfall or irrigation is needed every 7
to 10 days depending on how well your soil holds
moisture. Many people use drip irrigation, and it is
probably the best system for blackberries as the plants
like lots of moisture but do not like to be too wet.
Planting. You can buy either plants or root
cuttings to get your project started. Root cuttings are
placed in a trench 2 to 4 inches deep with 2 to 3 feet
between plants in rows that are 6 to 12 feet apart. The
distance between the rows depends on what type of
equipment you use to keep the row centers clear of
You can also purchase dormant bareroot plants in the
winter for immediate planting at the same distances.
Growing blackberry plants are sometimes available in
containers that can be set out at your convenience.
Pollination. Insects are necessary for
pollination of the berries. While honeybees are the best
pollinators, many insects will visit the flowering
plants. Most areas have enough pollinators for a home
Trellising and Pruning. Pruning and trellising
are probably the most important part of growing
blackberries. A metal T post and wire trellis system is
the most common way of handling the canes. You can also
use any type trellis for just a plant or two.
Use metal 6-1/2 foot T posts, which you can get at
nearly any farm supply store. Place them 15 to 20 feet
apart in the row. Use two high tensile wires for
attaching the canes, one at 2-1/2 feet above the ground
and one at 4 feet above the ground. The wire is
available at most farm supply stores as electric fence
wire. Be sure to get the largest size with 12-1/2 gauge
being the best. Attach these wires to the T posts using
the wire clips that normally come with them or use any
short length of wire to attach the wires to the posts.
At the ends use a short metal electric fence post driven
in the ground at a 45 degree angle. Brace your end T
post ending your two wires at the ground with this
angled post. Tighten the wire either manually or using
an electric fence tightener.
If you set your first plants out in the winter you will
need to let them grow a while in the spring and early
summer. Then select the two strongest canes from each
plant and cut any others back at the ground. Let one
cane grow 3 to 4 inches above the first wire (at 2-1/2
feet) then cut it off about an inch below the first
wire. Two side shoots should then grow out below the
cut. Train the side shoots horizontally to the wire
using plant twist ties loosely attached or use twine.
You will need to do this a couple of times as the side
shoots grow out. Use a pair of gloves when doing this
even with the thornless varieties. Next, let the second
cane grow until it is 3 to 4 inches above the top wire
(at 4 feet) and then cut it back an inch below the wire
and train the side shoots to the wire as with the first
By training only two canes you will put all the plant's
energy into these canes and you will have bigger
healthier plants that will bear better crops. Be sure to
cut off any other sprouts that emerge from the ground.
The spring of the next year you should be set for a good
berry crop. After they have fruited, cut the floricanes
off at the ground and remove them. Then select two of
the new primocanes and follow the procedure above. Every
year you need to cut back the fruiting canes (after
fruiting) and train and tie the new primocanes if you
want bumper crops.
The common commercial trellis setup uses three or four
wires on the T posts. Wherever they grown, primocanes
are simply tied to the wires. This may be an easier
method but when it comes time to remove the floricanes
it is more work. The two wire system has been well
tested and seems to work better.
Diseases. There are a number of diseases that
affect blackberries. They include anthracnose, double
blossom (rosette), orange rust, crown gall, powdery
mildew, nematodes, strawberry weevil, cane borer, spider
mites and stink bugs. To prevent damage from diseases,
remove any wild blackberries from the immediate area,
select only good quality planting stock, destroy any
plants that show disease symptoms and remove the
fruiting floricanes from the field after they have
Fertilizer. The first year a balanced fertilizer
should be used after the plants show new growth. The
following years only nitrogen is usually needed. You can
apply the fertilizer as a narrow band along the row. If
you can, get a soil test to determine your exact soil
Blackberry plants can be purchased at nearly any nursery
or garden center in Texas. 'Brazos' is the variety that
is most commonly found, but the other improved varieties
are available at many nurseries.
Richard Ashton is the
author of several books on fruit growing. The
Incredible Pomegranate - Plant and Fruit, Jujube - The
Chinese Date and his soon to be published book
Sweet Cherries for Southern Orchards are available
from Third Millennium Publishing at
www.3mpub.com/ashton or they can be purchased
through the Texas Gardener bookstore.