It was hard to tell where the berry juice ended and where the blood began on Michael Mitchell’s arms as he emerged from a patch of Himalayan blackberry Saturday afternoon in DuPont.
The volunteer with Champions Centre church was covered with scratches and scrapes after spending the morning with other sweaty and determined folks to clear walking trails through a 21-acre site that will be soon be a new church.
“They come back at you with a vengeance,” Mitchell said.
While the volunteers were there mainly to provide access to the site at Barksdale Avenue and DuPont-Steilacoom Road for surveying, their battle is repeated every day across Western Washington. Conservation groups to homeowners cut, pull and spray a foe that chokes out native plants, reduces salmon habitat and makes land inaccessible.
Tasty but nasty
The misnamed Himalayan blackberry (it’s thought to originate in Armenia) was introduced for its large, tasty berries by botanist Luther Burbank in the 1880s. Burbank was a well known plant enthusiast (a Mercer Island park is named after him).
The plant has now spread across much of the temperate world.
Rubus armeniacus grows in pastures, along stream banks and even in backyards if you turn your back on it.
The reason, said Pierce Conservation District executive director Dana Coggon, is that the plant is so widespread it would be too much of a burden on property owners to clear it.
“They are the bullies of the plant world and just push everything else out of the way,” Coggon said.
Himalalyan blackberries shouldn’t be confused with Washington’s native and well-behaved blackberry. Those plants have smaller leaves, berries and don’t produce the thick canes Himalayans have.
“They’re extremely detrimental to our riparian zones,” Coggon said. Those are the stream and river banks where salmon lay their eggs and young fish mature before heading toward the sea.
Native plants shade waterways, allow a succession of plants to grow and nurture the insects that fish feed on. Blackberries put a stop to all of that.
“They have figured how to entice birds to come and get some berries and take those berries to another riparian zone,” Coggon said.
Birds, like people, feast on the Himalayan’s berries. Even the most hardened Himalayan hater would be hard-pressed to deny their deliciousness. But those pies and smoothies come with a price for the natural world.
Rats and other rodents like to make their homes in the thickets which, when dry enough, can become fire hazards.
From cows to salmon
Decades ago, dairy farmers in east Pierce County thought the Ohop Creek valley would make good pasture. They cleared the land of native trees and shrubs and ditched the creek to one side of the valley.
The land didn’t turn out to be the best for raising dairy cattle, and one by one the dairies closed. Their legacy of cleared fields were soon taken over by Himalayan blackberries.
The Nisqually Land Trust began buying the former dairies and other property that fronted the Ohop about 20 years ago. The trust now controls just under 6,000 acres in the Nisqually River watershed. That includes 650 acres along Ohop Creek which protects nearly 10 miles of shoreline.
The Land Trust estimates 10 acres worth of blackberries are scattered throughout its Ohop properties.
“Having volunteers that can help us come out every week to knock back some of these particularly problematic invasive plants, like the blackberry, is critical to us just being able to keep up with taking care of these properties,” said executive director Jeanette Dorner.
The Land Trust is holding a blackberry-removal work party from 9 a.m.-noon Wednesday, Aug. 17 along Ohop Creek.
If you can’t make that one, there will be more.
“There is a group of volunteers that consistently come out every Wednesday morning to help us take care of our properties,” Dorner said. “We are not going to run out of blackberry anytime soon.”
The Ohop Creek is now being restored to its original meandering route.
The Conservation District has habitat steward employees and volunteers who clear sites almost every weekend of invasive plants.
Coggon likes to remind people that invasive plant clearing can often begin on private property.
“If we can remove one or two plants on our own property, we can actually reduce the seed set that’s going to be out in the natural areas,” she said.
While cutting back the bushes can reduce its spread the only sure way to kill it is to dig up its roots. Heavy gloves and clothing is recommended.
On Oct. 15, the Conservation District and others are observing Orca Recovery Day. A healthy Orca population needs a healthy salmon population and they, in turn, need an ecosystem free of Himalayan blackberries.
The day will feature bad plant pulling and good plant installation.