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DELICIOUS CITY
Issue #1 - Fall 2007

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Pick Wild Blackberries!
(Just don't get busted) by Jess Thomson

(PICKING BLACKBERRIES ILLEGAL IN SEATTLE CITY PARKS)

Seattle is a city of food lovers, a city of communities knitted tightly around their farmer's markets. And, ecologically speaking, Seattle's a delicious city: it saves up three seasons' worth of rain and sneezes it out in the form of fruit once the sun has had a chance to do its work.

Each August, the blackberry bushes in Seattle's 400 city parks hang heavy with fruit. But next time you set off with your little basket and your little ones to go a-gathering in Discovery Park, know this: you're actually committing a little crime. Last summer was my first in Seattle, and as soon as I got over the sheer volume of blackberries growing wild here, I began wondering how many go to waste each season. I called Joelle Ligon at Seattle Parks and Recreation for help in writing a guide to Seattle's vast blackberry patches, thinking a little more knowledge might help everyone make use of what must be a considerable city-wide blackberry harvest.

But according to Ligon, Communications Strategic Advisor for Parks and Rec, picking berries is not allowed. Food falls under the same guidelines as flowers, which are strictly park property.

"We certainly don't want to participate in an article that would encourage people to (pick)," Ligon told me. Touché. Why does a city supposedly devoted to using resources responsibly and eating locally put the kibosh on such a widely available - and free - local food supply? No, Himalayan blackberries aren't the very best blackberry variety, but they're tasty and fun to pick. Ligon, a very nice woman just doing her job, reports that picking can hurt the parks. "People actually put cardboard down on the blackberry brambles and use it to climb further back for more berries, which damages the bushes," she points out.

Considering that Parks and Rec spends around $750,000 per year controlling the parks' invasive plant species (of which Himalayan blackberries - Rubus discolor - is by far the most prevalent), that's a pretty funny reason. Funnier still that they estimate they'd have to spend over four times that amount each year (about $3.3 million yearly) over the next 20 years to get those invasive plants completely "under control." Why not view destructive pickers as free labor? Tom Walters, a fruit horticulturist at Washington State University's Mt. Vernon campus, laughed when I told him picking blackberries is illegal in Seattle parks.

"I don't think picking them would do much damage, either to the plants or to the birds which feed on them," he says.

photos by Jess Thomson

In 2000, Seattle Urban Nature (SUN), a nonprofit committed to improving urban forestation, published a full inventory of Seattle's public land. SUN also found Rubus discolor to be the most invasive plant in all of Seattle's forests, covering 12% of all forested areas, 6,200 acres of which are currently parkland. That's 1,020 acres of blackberry bushes, which some scientists say can grow up to 30 feet each year, choking back native species.

Walters estimates that an acre of untended Himalayan blackberry bushes produces two to three tons of fruit each season, or about a third of what a decent berry farmer might expect on cultivated land.

Let's round down and do some simple math. No scientific method, just an exercise, for the sake of argument: Suppose that Seattle currently has 1,000 acres of Himalayan blackberries, and that each of those acres produces just two tons of berries per season. Let's give half to the birds that feed on them (and, yes, that poop out the seeds and help the brambles spread). Even with a conservative estimate, the productivity of Seattle-owned blackberry patches still adds up to 1,000 tons per year, or 2 million pounds of blackberries, which translates to about 1 million deep-dish blackberry pies.

That's a lot of pie. Think of the butter involved.

While I get why it might make sense to leave flower blossoms in place for all to enjoy in our parks-and understand why naturalists want Rubus eradicated-I'm not sure if I grasp the logic of leaving ripe blackberries to rot on existing plants. Wouldn't the overgrowth problem be worse if we actually stopped picking?

And what if the parks encouraged it? Imagine if, say, the parks system spent some of that $750,000 maintenance budget to build paths through the brambles, which might persuade Seattleites to commune over blackberries instead of BlackBerries. Or hired some of Seattle's roughly 8,000 homeless people to gather berries and sell them in the parks. Like lemonade stands, for destitute grown-ups. But wait. That's just me, daydreaming of blackberry lemonade and a FareStart day camp. There's no way Seattleites would encourage the homeless to spend more time in their parks, near their children.

When pressed, Seattle Parks and Rec admitted it doesn't carry any criminal enforcement capability over anything in the park, so there are no real ramifications. (I'm sure you were scared.)

"You might get some reeducation from a naturalist," says Ligon. So maybe "illegal" is too strong a word. Keep picking away. Parks and Rec treats blackberry bushes with herbicide only very rarely, and never when the berries are ripe. Just bring your own cardboard, and watch out for the naturalists. They can be thorny.

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Park It

photos by Jess Thomson

You'll find blackberries growing in almost every Seattle park, but Carkeek, Discovery, Gas Works, and Magnuson Parks have especially large patches. You can find a complete guide to Seattle's parks at seattle.gov/parks. Note that Carkeek Park has a proper orchard, with quince, pear, apple, and nut trees that are open to the public for harvesting. Call Belinda at (206) 684-5999 for more information about picking there.

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Nit-Picking

Apples, figs, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, and plums are also ripening all over the city, right in peoples' front yards. "There is no city ordinance that deals with fruit," says Seattle City Arborist Nolan Rundquist, regarding the legality of picking low-hanging fruit.

According to Seattle's municipal code, planting strips (the narrow plots of land between the sidewalk and the street in many residential areas) must be maintained by their abutting property owner. Trees may extend above the right of way (AKA sidewalk), but no debris (fruit, for example) is permitted either on the sidewalk or in the space eight feet above it. Rundquist says that his job is to make sure the sidewalk is passable, and that any fruit on the limbs less than eight feet above the sidewalk, or anything on the sidewalk, is fair game.

"Picking wouldn't be a criminal action unless pursued by the property owner," he says.

But c'mon. Be nice. If someone has coaxed Meyer lemons out of two square feet of western Washington soil, sealing them would be bad, bad mojo. Ditto for baby trees, anything out of a child's garden, or food growing in a garden that looks like it might, say, feed a family.

Remember to wash everything. And accept that when your little apple tree is all growed up, you'll have to share your harvest, too.

-Jess Thomson

Visit seasonalcornucopia.com for information on what's in season year-round in our area, or explore the interactive map of edible plants (including fruit trees and blackberries) in Seattle at commonsgarden.com.


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