Food for free: how to properly forage for blackberries

Tips to help you pick the most delicious fruit in a painless, sustainable way.

What comes to mind when you think of hazy, late summer days? It might be the first migrating geese arriving in formation overhead. Perhaps it’s our eight-legged friends busy weaving shimmering geometric webs. Or wasps seeking their next sugar highs from your picnic. For me, it’s berries. Bountiful bushes laden with berries.  

If you’ve always liked the idea of seeking out hedgerows, basket in hand, to forage for blackberries – but have never tried it before – we’re here to help. Knowing how to pick blackberries properly when they’re in season between August and October will ensure you safely choose the most delicious fruit, while protecting their natural environment (and the wildlife they support).  

man wearing a hat and gloves picking blackberriesCredit: Shutterstock / RossHelen
Brambles can be found all over the UK, from coastal paths to city parks

1. Protect your hands

Wear some gloves and long sleeves

If you’ve ever tried to handle brambles in your own garden, you’ll know they can be tricky. And prickly. It makes sense to protect your hands and forearms if you intend to go blackberrying in the wild. 

“Wear long sleeves, trousers and gloves,” advises Esther Frizell-Armitage, Team Wilder community ecologist for Avon Wildlife Trust. “Using a litter picker, walking pole or stick can help you reach the most tempting treats. Some thorns can harbour diseases, and puncture wounds can cause infections if not treated as soon as possible.” 

A lightweight pair of thorn-proof gardening gloves should do the job. 

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2. Be safe on the roads

Watch your step and be wary of traffic

Depending on where you live, your local hedgerows and bramble thickets might be along roadsides. (Though these might not be the best fruit to forage due to pollution and dirt, especially on busier roads.)

Knowing how to pick blackberries safely will mean you can enjoy the fruits of your labour without injury or affecting the natural environment around the plants. 

“Do try to avoid busy roads and blind bends for your safety,” says Frizell-Armitage. And it’s important to know where you’re putting your feet, especially if you’re in a forest or on a coastal path.  

“Please don’t trample an orchid [if you’re foraging earlier in the season – but be mindful of all wildflowers] in your efforts to reach a clump of berries,” she adds.

“Also, do be aware that the brambles provide shelter for small mammals, birds and insects, and the thorny thickets protect new tree seedlings from the attentions of deer and other grazing animals. Try to minimise how much impact your foraging has on the surrounding habitat.” 

Before you start gleefully picking blackberries, be sure to check whether the land you’re roaming is public or privately owned. You may need to seek permission from the landowner first, even if you’re foraging for personal use.  

3. Avoid contaminated bushes

Pesticides, pollution and pee can be an issue

No one wants to eat fresh, wild berries that are covered in chemicals or dog pee. Make sure your blackberries are safe to eat by choosing your foraging spots wisely. Blackberries growing along roadsides will likely be polluted with exhaust fumes and dirt thrown up from passing vehicles.  

“Be aware of hedges along fields of crops, which might have been sprayed with insecticides or pesticides,” says Frizell-Armitage. “Seek out bramble bushes in parks and along the edges of woodlands where possible.   

“Pick berries from higher up the bush – if you’ve ever followed a dog along a hedge, you’ll know why! Wash the fruit when you get home by soaking it for 20 minutes and then draining and drying the berries on a paper towel.” 

4. Don’t clear a bush of berries

Leave enough fruit for birds, badgers, hedgehogs and foxes

You’ve discovered an ideal thicket of brambles in a safe spot, laden with ripe berries. But before you clear the entire bush, spare a thought for the other creatures feeding on the fruit.  

“While it might be tempting to strip the brambles of all the ripe blackberries, do consider that common garden visitors also enjoy these juicy dark fruits,” says Eric Michels, head Vivara Pro at CJ Wildlife. “Blackbirds, thrushes and finches all enjoy a beak-ful of blackberries. 

“Blackberries are naturally high in vitamin C, giving birds a boost of energy and sustenance during a time when insects might not be in abundance. As the colder weather creeps in, insects become difficult to find, especially if a frost is due.   

“Once digested, any seeds present within the fruit will pass through the bird’s stomach and be dropped in new locations. If conditions allow, they will grow into new brambles elsewhere.” 

It’s not just birds that enjoy the berries

“Blackberries are a valuable food source for a range of species, including badgers, foxes and rare mammals, such as the hazel dormouse,” says Frizell-Armitage. “They help to fatten up these animals, so they can get through the winter. Bramble flowers also offer a large amount of pollen and nectar for pollinators including bees, hoverflies and butterflies.  

“Dense bramble bushes even ensure protection and shelter for nesting birds, reptiles such as slow worms and grass snakes, and small mammals.” 

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5. Choose the best berries

Your taste buds will thank you

Not all berries are created equal. A huge part of understanding how to pick blackberries well is identifying the ripest, tastiest fruit. 

“These luscious delights have a deep purple-black colour and a glossy sheen,” explains forager James Wood from Totally Wild UK. “They are round and plump, with a cluster of tiny seeds hiding within. To ensure you’re picking the ripest berries, gently give them a squeeze. If they yield slightly and feel soft, you’ve hit the jackpot! Avoid any berries that are hard, incredibly mushy or have visible signs of mould. Trust me, your taste buds will thank you later. 

“As they get older, they become sweeter, so there’s a bit of a game to be had in finding the plumpest ones that look like they’re just ready to burst.” 

Wood says when he doesn’t have his trusty basket made with bramble stems to hand, he sometimes picks straight into a plastic freezer-safe tub, so the juice doesn’t leak everywhere. 

Blackberry crumble, anyone? 

Blackberrying is hungry work. Thankfully, you can reap the rewards of your efforts with delicious recipes. Creating a crumble is one of Saga Exceptional homes writer Camilla Sharman’s favourite ways to use her foraged bounty. 

“Don’t be afraid to go off-recipe,” she says. “Blackberries work well if they are combined with apple. A good eating apple, such as a Braeburn, will work well. This means, unlike a cooking apple, you won’t have to peel the skin or add lots of extra sugar, although you will need to add some extra sweetness.  

“My tip is to add a tablespoon or two of jam. For an apple and blackberry crumble, a blackberry jam works well. I recently used blackcurrant jam, as it was what I already had in my cupboard, and that was tasty, too. I like to mix up the crumble a bit and add half plain flour with half porridge oats. Plus, I include a good sprinkle of chopped hazelnuts for extra crunch.” 

Blackberry recipes can be found at Totally Wild.

6. Perfect your picking technique

A gentle touch is needed

Keeping the ripest, fit-to-burst blackberries intact can be tricky. It’s a known issue for professional and commercial pickers, too, so if you find yourself in a bit of a mess, you’re not alone. Luckily, we’ve some expert techniques to help you along.  

Use your thumb and first two fingers to encase the blackberry and keep even pressure on each finger,” advises Wood. “Pull only the fruit away from the stem in a straight line (directly away from the stalk, as though the fruit were a sock you’re taking off your foot).  

“The stem will stay on the bush, and you’ll have a lovely intact blackberry. What you do next is your choice, whether you pop it straight in your mouth or in the basket is completely up to you. I usually follow the rule of one for me, one for the basket.” 

7. Visit a pick-your-own farm

A fun day out for the whole family

Heading into the great outdoors isn’t for everyone. You may need a more accessible route to pick blackberries safely or would prefer to visit a venue with plenty of other things to do if you’re entertaining children.  

Thankfully, there are swathes of pick-your-own farms dotted around the UK. As well as blackberries, the farms and orchards often have other crops you can gather yourself, depending on the season. 

A useful online source if you want to find somewhere near you is pickyourownfarms.org.uk. 

8. Join an expert

Enrol on a foraging course

Now you know how to pick blackberries, you might be hungry for more expert insight. If so, we highly recommend signing up to a guided foraging course. This is also a great idea if you’re feeling a little timid about setting off on your first foraging trip and would prefer to explore nature’s bounty as part of a group activity.  

Wood agrees that joining a professional is “by far the easiest way to learn”. A quick Google search should help you find local, seasonal foraging trips near you. You can also find the courses available from Totally Wild’s website 

Grow your own blackberries at home

If foraging isn’t feasible

If you’re less mobile, don’t feel confident tackling the hedgerows or don’t live near a thicket of brambles, you can still get in on the blackberry-picking fun. Saga Exceptional’s gardening editor Simon Akeroyd is fond of growing his own blackberries at home.  

“The fruits are usually larger and sweeter than the brambles growing out in the wild,” he explains. “They have been bred for their improved flavour, too. Many plant nurseries sell compact varieties that are ideal for growing on a patio. There are even some almost ‘thorn-less’ varieties to try, which your hands and forearms will thank you for.  

“The best way to grow a blackberry is in a pot on the patio. I’ve even grown a blackberry in an old dustbin with holes drilled in the bottom as drainage holes. You could plant it in the ground but be aware it’s basically a bramble. It can become invasive and spread through the rest of your garden if you’re not careful.” 

Akeroyd recommends choosing a compact blackberry variety, such as ‘Tiny Black’, ‘Opal’ and ‘Little Black Prince’. 

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Our editor’s guide to planting blackberries in a pot: 

  • The pot needs to be at least 30cm (11.8in) wide and deep.  
  • Place crocks or stones over the drainage holes to prevent compost washing out.  
  • Fill with a peat-free, general-purpose (sometimes called multi-purpose) compost.
  • Plant the blackberry so the top of the root ball is just level with the surface of the compost.
  • Each winter, cut some of the older canes away, back to near the base of the plant. Leave the younger growth as these will produce fruit the following year. Just repeat this process each year and you will be able to enjoy going blackberrying from the comfort of your own garden. 
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Rosanna Spence

Written by Rosanna Spence she/her

Published:

Rosanna Spence has been a journalist for nearly 10 years, reporting on a huge array of topics – from microwaves to cocktails, sustainable buildings, the Caribbean islands and beyond. She’s interviewed chefs at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurants and chatted to countless CEOs about their businesses, as well as created travel guides for experienced travellers seeking life-changing adventures. Throughout her career, she has created content for Business Traveller, i-escape.com, Pub & Bar, BRITA, Dine Out and many more leading titles and brands.

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