JEMISON, ALA. — When blackberry lovers arrive at the pick-your-own section of Petals From the Past nursery in Jemison, Ala., early in the summer, they act as if they've found mecca. "Ooh," they say, eyeing Kiowas the size of a half-dollar - one of the largest blackberries in the world. "These look so good," they murmur, popping five into their containers, one into their mouths.
Kiowas, which were released by the University of Arkansas in 1996, are the crowning glory for manygardens and pick-your-own farmsin the South and the Northwest. In Yankee territory, however, the fruit is not as well known.
Arlie Powell, the fruit expert at Petals From the Past, says Northerners don't know what they're missing. The Kiowa gives people the ultimate blackberry experience, since it's not just large - each fruit can weigh almost an ounce - but has a sweet flavor and is easy to harvest. Here, where the vines have been trellised and pruned by expert hands, pickers don't even have to bend over - or climb a ladder - to reach the glistening dark jewels.
"Blackberries in the South are a nostalgic fruit," says Mr. Powell. When people reminisce about the first cobbler of the season, their eyes tend to sparkle. But then they frown as they recall the challenges of finding the berries. "People remember picking them in the wild. They remember the chiggers and snakes, too."
Northerners can tell similar tales of battling insects - or being scratched by thorns - while picking along the roadside. The blackberry, after all, is native to most regions of the US. As settlers cut forests and cleared meadows, blackberries spread and cross-pollinated on their own. Since then, plant breeders have developed many hybrids.
The thorny, erect Kiowa is a good choice for both farmers and homeowners, according to experts, because it does not need to be trellised.
The berry also has a high yield and a long fruiting season - six weeks as opposed to three for many other varieties. An acre of Kiowas can produce 9,000 to 10,000 pounds of fruit. What's more, berries picked toward the end of the season will be as large as those picked the first week.
Gardeners who want to start a backyard berry patch should plant them four to six weeks before the last frost, spacing them about four feet apart. During the growing season, the plants continuously produce shoots, called primocanes, which bear fruit in their second year.
Blackberries are a little bit of work, says Craig Andersen,associate professor and horticulturist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.
But Kiowas are worth the effort, he says, as long as homeowners follow a few simple guidelines: Blackberries need at least eight hours of direct sunlight daily and a source of water. He recommends using a soaker hose down the row. (If that's not possible, water twice a week if weather is dry.) Fertilizing in spring and fall will increase yields.
Japanese beetles or rust fungus can be problems in some areas.
Although typically rated for USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9, Kiowas may not do well in all climates. "Once you get farther north than Missouri, you're probably getting into some areas where they're not going to survive the winter," says Dr. Andersen.
Even in the South, there may be a problem with "blackberry winter," where an early-spring warm spell causes the plants to bloom, only for the flowers to be killed by a frost.
To some, losing the crop to frost is a real tragedy, especially in places like Texas, where "they go nuts" over the purple-black berry, Andersen says.
Everything about this fruit seems to encourage extremes, such as the tall tales people tell of tangling with giant thorns or of traipsing off into the woods, not knowing when - or if - they'll return. These even show up on university websites.
Such stories are another part of the blackberry's mystique. But in a few years, says Andersen, the berry may be famous for another reason. Arkansas researchers are developing a new variety that will produce fruit the first year and have the size and quality of the Kiowa.
If they're successful, this new "wonder berry," which has yet to be named, would also have a longer fruiting season, be easier to prune, and be hardierthan the Kiowa.
Andersen isn't certain that the new berry will achieve the Kiowa's size, but it should be available to commercial growers for trial in two years. Homeowners will have to wait a bit longer. For now, people are still singing the praises of the Kiowa.
A more pressing issue may be the age-old question: How do you know when blackberries are ripe? Some experts say the fruit is ready when it has lost its shine and become a bit dull. Others, like Andersen, say, "Just go out there and try a few. You'll know if they're sweet enough or not."
In Alabama, patrons of Petals From the Past say the berries were indeed sweet enough this summer. If they had a complaint at all, it was that the picking experience may have been a bit too easy.
"This was supposed to take all day," said one smiling woman from nearby Birmingham, who was holding a full basket in each hand. "You've given us 15 minutes of entertainment."
She popped another berry in her mouth and added, "Y'all got it right. I'm ready to go home and make me a big cobbler."