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Lexington Landscapes: Blackberries and Meadows

It's August, and blackberries are ripe in Lexington—if you can find them.

It's August. In my mind, it ought to be blackberry season—but in August, my mind is generally in New Jersey.

At one of the first talks I gave about my book Boston Gardens and Green Spaces, a kindly-looking, stern-voiced woman well past a certain age asked me, “You're not from around here, are you?” The answer was no; although components of my genetic material have been lurking in Massachusetts since 1630 or so, I was compelled to grow up in New Jersey, just beyond the reach of the Laurentide glaciers.

There, the ground wasn't full of rocks, the boulders weren't erratic, and every summer we reveled in the food you can find where there's floodplain soil and the growing season is more than three-and-a-half months long. In August, there were enormous ears of butter-and-sugar corn from the farm stand up the road, tomatoes from my mother's garden, and blackberries from the far corners of my parents' ten-acre wilds. The blackberries were fat, juicy and sweet, and the best one was always just a little farther than you could reach without being impaled.

 and are happy to supply Lexingtonians with as much tomatoes and corn as possible—and if they run out, there's always the . But local blackberries have eluded me there. There are good reasons for that: wild blackberries are featured on the Massachusetts Prohibited Plants List, and are thus illegal to sell or propagate in the state. Eight other states and the federal government consider them pests or “noxious weeds.” It's understandable, given how they grew and spread where I grew up—into gigantic matted bramble fields. Eventually, another even more noxious weed, the Norway maple, took over the field and shaded them out. Otherwise, I doubt I could find my parents' house.

But they do taste good, and they do grow in Lexington. Mind you, they grow on conservation land, and Lexington requires prior permission from the town before you pick anything from any park or conservation land, even if the Feds think it's a public menace.

Perhaps, though, you merely wish to observe blackberries. Once upon a time, there were several patches in Joyce Miller's Meadow, snug between the Minuteman Bikeway and Arlington's Great Meadow. Alas, buckthorn—another member of the Prohibited Plant List-- has shaded out the brambles in the Meadow. (Can Norway maples be far behind?)

I paged through Tom Sileo's "Historical Guide to Open Space in Lexington," hoping to find some other brambly locations, and found that, while Sileo is happy to point out wild strawberries, blueberries, cherries, honeysuckle and a gaudy purple mushroom called the violet cort (in Lower Vine Brook, should you care to glimpse it), he doesn't mention blackberries at all.

The one place I can guarantee that you can find blackberry cane, if not actual blackberries, is Dunback Meadow. The wetlands are swamp enough that trees simply don't bother to grow, leaving open sun enough for blackberries, Joe Pye weed, goldenrod... and buckthorn. There are blackberries there now, but my hopes aren't high for 2012.

These aren't the New Jersey blackberries of my youth. They're smaller, and tarter, and have more of the tannic, vegetal taste of oversteeped tea and unboiled acorns. Still, back when I had a garden plot at the Dunback Meadow community garden (and was ignorant of conservation land harvesting restrictions) they were dear to me. Even in the year when every single one of my pepper plants was devoured by animals unknown, my Sungold tomatoes were ravaged by blight, and the strawberries disappeared into the mulch whence they game, the Dunback Meadow blackberries were there to be (illegally) harvested. I suppose the Dunback groundhogs and rabbits don't care to be impaled, or haven't figured out how to climb.

And so it's August. It is blackberry season, even in rocky, chilly Lexington, where my children are chiefly fed Busa's tomatoes, and the blackberries grow in a few straggly canes instead of a great frenzy of thorns and unreachable fruit.

It's a different for them. But there are some rewards for moving to the glaciers' realm. Thanks to , my children's' summers feature far better ice cream than anything I ever had.

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