Ames Free Library

"Where the Community Connects"

A Glimpse of Nature - Black Raspberry

See what’s happening on the grounds of the Ames Free Library or nearby areas with “A Glimpse of Nature.”  Offered by Lorraine Rubinacci, the library's resident naturalist, this weekly photo blog is a gentle reminder to enjoy the wonders that surround us.


A Glimpse of Nature - "Black Raspberry"

One hot July day many years ago, my father took his thirteen-year-old daughter “for a ride,” his phrase for a mini escape from life’s worries.   That fortuitous outing led to our discovery of black raspberries. 


We found them in a moist thicket at the edge of a wood, which is typical for this species which prefers partial sun and rich, moist soil.  Black raspberry is a multi-stemmed shrub whose branches are called canes.  When the tips of the arching canes touch ground, they can root, thereby expanding the colony.  The plant can also spread through underground runners.  The image above shows fruit in various stages of development:  the black-purple “drupe” on the top right is fully ripe.  Finding these tasty jewels launched the summer of berry picking.  

Growing up in a densely populated neighborhood, I had never been berry picking, but I soon became an enthusiast.  Every week, we gathered, sorted and cooked fruit:  first the black raspberries, then highbush blueberries, blackberries, and elderberries.  When the bounty outpaced our appetites, we converted them into jam, syrup, muffins, and wine.  Delightful aromas filled our kitchen as each new project unfolded.

Unlike blackberries, black raspberry fruit easily rolls off the plant, leaving the hard pith behind.  The fully-ripe berry is hollow, giving rise to the common name, thimbleberry.

Being in the berry patch, surrounded by lovely fragrances and bird songs, was a joy.  Yet harvesting black raspberries requires determination and some . . . courage.  The fruit ripens in hot, humid weather, at a time when long pants and long-sleeved shirts are not at all comfortable.  Protective clothing is necessary because the canes are armed with thorns.

Black raspberry cane

Mosquitoes, who prefer sultry weather, increase the challenge.  I soon learned to dress in armor, at least to the extent that I could tolerate the heat.  My mother gave me a long-sleeved shirt that could deter biting insects and withstand berry stains.  It became my uniform.  This was also the year that I discovered poison ivy, though the details of identification came later.  For what it’s worth, black raspberry has three leaflets, too.  Plant ID requires some attention and practice.

Black raspberry leaves



Black raspberry is a perennial shrub, but the part that we see, the canes, live for only two years.  This is important to know when growing the species as a crop.  First year canes are greenish-white and bear no fruit.  Second year canes, which have a purple blush, yield the berries.  After fruiting, the canes turn brown.  It will come as no surprise that I planted a patch in the first home that I owned.  Once per year, I donned canvas clothing and faced the daunting task of pruning dead canes.  In return, the black raspberry plants gave me fruit, wildlife, and the winter beauty of their arching purple canes.

Black raspberry canes in winter

Credit: Jesse Bellemare via Twitter


I smiled when I discovered a tiny patch of black raspberry plants behind Queset Garden.  The plants are barely visible and not thriving because they are being overwhelmed by the invasive porcelain berry vine. This is unfortunate since the black raspberry plant is far more effective in supporting wildlife.  The website Illinois Wildflowers lists nearly 100 species of raspberry-feeding insects that consume the nectar, pollen, or foliage.  Fifteen mammals and over 50 species of birds utilize plants in the raspberry family for food or shelter.  This species demonstrates, once again, that “weeds'' and “bugs” foster abundant life. 

My first picking season ended with the September elderberries, and so did the heady mix of adventure, discomfort, companionship, and exquisite flavors.  Life moved on, but my father’s gift to me remained.  At a time of family loss and uncertainty, the quest for luscious fruit focused our attention on life’s abundance and joy. That berry-picking shirt still hangs in my closet.


At the Library

A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America

by Lee Allen Peterson

Blueberries for Sal

by Robert McCloskey

Berries, Nuts and Seeds*

by Diane Burns

*This title is available through the Commonwealth Catalog


Blog Category: 


Submitted by claire verrier on

i enjoyed the write up .it was very intresting, i enjoyed all the blog lorraine wrote.she did a lot of work, thank you lorraine .

Submitted by Maura Tyrrell on

So happy you wrote about how important this plant is to wildlife! 15 mammals, 50 birds, 100+ insects!!! We have one growing among peoniies and tansy; I have new respect for it now.

Submitted by Carol Hamilton on

How can I tell you the joy I receive in reading each wonderful installment of Lorraine's "A Glimpse of Nature"? Her photographs are indescribably beautiful, her accounts magnificent in their lyricism, and her facts fantastically informative, inspiring, and creatively interspersed with heartfelt and deeply personal reflections. Such wisdom, knowledge and beauty in each episode. What gems! Truly heavenly!

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