They grow like weeds. They’re only slightly different from a poisonous plant. And to many of the Germans-from-Russia in the Nebraska Panhandle, they’re a delicacy.
Though they probably came over in a seed packet, the legend goes that German blackberries were smuggled here through Ellis Island in the bellies of immigrants.
Despite the implausibility of that story, it’s not exactly known how solanum nigrum, or edible black nightshade, came to be cultivated in this part of the world.
The small, dark purple berries closely resemble the poisonous solanaceae atropa — belladonna, or common nightshade.
One way to distinguish the two plants is that German blackberries typically grow upward while nightshade grows outward over the ground.
Most people think of blackberries as a cluster of dark purple drupelets that grow wild in areas such as the Pacific Northwest. German blackberries grow in clusters, but they are individual and separate, which makes them a challenge to pick.
Gene Koenig, a long-time Gering resident, grows blackberries as part of his backyard vegetable and flower garden.
“Everyone who has picked them for their grandma or their mom has a story to tell,” he said.
Growing up, this reporter and his brother used to have trouble filling an inch of an empty Cool-Whip bowl with the delicate, ripe berries. Boredom would set in and soon there would be more flying through the air than landing in the bowl.
We dreaded the chore. When our hired-man fortuitously sprayed the patch with Round-Up, we celebrated. Inwardly, of course. Some of our family members were noticeably upset.
Lorraine Thomas, from west of Scottsbluff, had more patience when it came to picking. Up until about eight years ago, some people in the community knew her as The Blackberry Lady.
By her own account, one summer she picked $5,000 worth of blackberries. That’s a sizeable amount at $16 a gallon.
“It’s hard, hard work,” Thomas said.
The sweet berries are an acquired taste, but Thomas grew up around them. As is tradition among German-Russian families, in her family (and mine) they are eaten on kuchen (the German word for cake), in dumplings and baked in pies.
Thomas’s patch yielded particularly well, due in part to its location where cattle used to gather. The plants grew four feet tall, which even provided a little shade as Thomas sat on her padded bucket tickling the ripe berries off the vine.
Area churches often sell blackberry pies and other related desserts for their fundraisers. At one point Thomas sold 20 buckets to one church in the area.
For the Germans from Russia, the berry is essential to preserving tradition here.
“It ties a lot of German people,” Thomas said. “They’re all familiar with it.”
But lately they’re getting harder and harder to find in the community. When my grandma, who has baked pies and blackberry bread every year for as long as I can remember, is at a loss where to buy them, then the situation really is dire.
Koenig sells a few, but with all the other vegetables and plants he’s growing, he really doesn’t have the time to pick and wash blackberries.
Sounds like a business opportunity, if you have the patience to fill a few buckets.
- Blackberry bread
This recipe is for a sheet kuchen, what is known in Germany as blechkuchen, and to the Volga Germans as dinne’ kuche’.
Make a rich sweet yeast dough: In a large measuring cup, mix 1 packet of active dry yeast and a pinch of sugar into 1/4 cup of lukewarm water.
In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 cup of scalded milk, 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of lard, butter or vegetable shortening. Let cool to lukewarm. Add 1 and 1/2 cups of flour to the milk mixture and beat well. Beat in the proofed yeast and 1 egg. Gradually work in about 2 cups more flour. Knead until the soft dough is smooth and silky. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn it over, cover and let rise until double in bulk. Punch down the dough and let it rise again.
Roll out the dough about 3/8 inch thick and put it on a greased baking or cookie sheet, making a raised ridge around the perimeter of the dough with your fingers to contain the topping.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Make the topping: Distribute about 3 cups of blackberries over the rolled out dough. In a bowl, beat together 2 tbsp. flour, 3/4 c. sugar, 1/4 c. cream, and 2 eggs. Pour this all over the berries. Dust with cinnamon.
Bake the blackberry bread until the edges of the crust are nicely browned and the filling is set, about 40 to 45 minutes. Take the bread from the oven, brush the edges with melted butter, and let cool on a rack.
Recipe from North Dakota State University’s website.
Bart Schaneman is the assistant editor at the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9056 or via email at email@example.com.