Black Raspberry plants are perennial shrubs native to Eastern North America. Scientifically known as Rubus occidentalis, it will grow 6′ long biennial canes and have a somewhat spreading nature. Incredibly important for wildlife, dozens of bees, insects, birds and mammals eat the delicious edible fruit in Summer.
A delicious addition to any property, Black Raspberry benefits humans and wildlife alike. Pollinators love the flowers, insects love the foliage, and humans/birds/mammals love the fruits. In fact, one will not typically find Black Raspberries for sale outside of a farmer’s market due to their short shelf-life. All the more important that we learn how to forage or grow our own!
But I will tell you all I’ve learned about growing, propagating, and collecting/preserving Black Raspberries in this guide. In this article:
- What is Black Raspberry
- What are the benefits of Black Raspberry
- How to grow and care for Black Raspberry
- Propagation and lifecycle
- Identification / Characteristics
- Harvesting berries
- What Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases effect Black Raspberry
- Where to buy Black Raspberry
- Uses of Black Raspberry
- Final thoughts
What is Black Raspberry
The Black Raspberry plant is a somewhat ‘wild’ native plant that is well suited to a meadow or woodland border, but can be ‘trained’ to be a formal landscape plant. It can form a deciduous hedge that will have big benefits to wildlife, and act as a natural border due to the small thorns on the canes. The berries of this plant are very delicious, and the only way to get them fresh is to grow or pick your own, as their shelf-life is measured in days!   
In the wild it is often encountered in thickets. But this vine can be cultivated and trained to grow where you want without too much effort. Propagating new plants from existing is quite easy.
Facts about the Black Raspberry
- Black Raspberry is a member of the Rosaceae family
- Another common name it is known by, Thimbleberry, refers to the hemispherical shape and form of the berry and how it resembles a common sewing thimble.
- Numerous birds and animals eat the berries
- A natural thicket plant, the vines can be trained to grow where you wish, allowing for a native plant hedge row
- Edible berries are widely cultivated for use in prepared foods / flavoring
- Research is finding may health benefits of Black Raspberries, providing they may help with cancer treatment, lower blood pressure as well as inflammation
- Native Americans had many uses of Black Raspberries. Not only food, they also used other parts of the plant to treat a variety of ailments.
- Widely cultivated, numerous varieties of Black Raspberry have been selected or hybridized for berry production or insect resistance.
Native Range of Black Raspberry
The native range of Black Raspberry the Eastern United States, from Oklahoma to South Carolina, then North to Minnesota and Maine. The natural habitat of Black Raspberries is open woodland, edges of forest, meadows and slopes when moisture is available.
Black Raspberry Reference Table
|Scientific Name||Rubus occidentalis|
|Common Name(s)||Black Raspberry, Black-cap Raspberry, Purple Cane Raspberry, Thimbleberry, Blackcap Raspberry|
|Native Range, USDA Zone||Eastern North America, USDA Hardiness Zone 4-8|
|Bloom Duration, Color||2-3 weeks, White flowers. Fruits last 3-4 weeks, red to black in color.|
|Height||Canes grow up to 6′ long, but only 2-4′ in height as they arch over horizontal.|
|Spacing / Spread||3′ plant spacing, 6′ in rows|
|Light Requirements||Full sun to shade|
|Soil Types||Sandy loam to clay-loam|
|Moisture||Moist to medium, well-draining.|
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts||Numerous bees pollinate the flowers, numerous insects feed on the plant, numerous birds/mammals eat the fruit.|
What are the Benefits of Black Raspberry
The red and white canes are attractive, as well as the tri-foliate leaves. Furthermore, the red/black berries are beautiful in and of themselves.
Big benefits to wildlife
From the flowers, to the leaves, to the berries…..Black Raspberry serves wildlife! This plant is the total package in terms of benefits to pollinators, insects, birds, and wildlife.
The berries produced by this plant are absolutely delicious. There is no other way to put it. And even though they have a short shelf life, Black Raspberry is the tastiest of all raspberry plants. There is a reason you can buy Black Raspberry yogurt and ice cream as the most common ‘berry’ flavors.
The purple stalks of Black Raspberry not only give away their location contrasted against the snow, but they provide Winter beauty and interest in the garden.
Adaptable growing conditions
Grow and Care for Black Raspberry
Black Raspberry will grow best in partial sun, as it is not very drought tolerant. Without access to moisture or rainfall, fruit may not develop. It can grow just fine in full sun as long as it has access to moisture.
While this plant can grow in quite shady conditions, the amount of fruit will be much less than sunnier conditions. Based on years of personal observation, the best sunlight conditions appear to be morning sun and afternoon shade. This provides ample sunlight for growth and fruit production while shading during the hottest afternoon temperatures, which further helps prevent drought. 
For soil, fertile loam is the absolute best. But I have personally grown this plant in compacted infertile sandy loam.
For moisture, Black Raspberry will grow best in well-draining moist to medium-moist soil.
For maintenance, fruit bearing stalks can be removed in Autumn. But it may be better to leave them up until warmer temperatures arrive in Spring or they naturally break off. Leaving at least 6″ of cane sticking above ground will protect any overwintering bees.
Also, you may need to keep this plant in check as it does like to spread. If canes are allowed to reach the ground, they will root. This may cause unwanted spreading. However, know that plants are easily relocated in Spring.
Black Raspberry should not require any supplemental fertilizer. A handful of compost applied each Spring around the canes would help it, but is not required. Black Raspberries would benefit most from long term soil building activities such as top-dressing with compost or applying a nice leaf mulch to naturally add nutrients.
Adding regular ‘over-the-counter’ or fertilizers that are high in nitrogen will not help with fruit production. And, in general, as a cane that lives two years, the cane is going to grow to a fixed length regardless of fertilizer. Your plants will benefit much more from soil building activities.
Propagation and lifecycle of Black Raspberry plants
Lifecycle of Black Raspberry plants
As a deciduous perennial shrub that produces biennial canes, the Black Raspberry has a somewhat rarer lifecycle than most other plants. So, let’s break down the plant into it’s parts…
The Black Raspberry has a perennial rootstock, meaning that it’s underground roots are long lived, providing moisture and nutrients to the above ground portions every year. Every year, the roots will produce new canes. The lifecycle of each cane is two years. New, first year canes are whitish green in color. These 1st year canes will produce leaves, but not fruit.
At the end of the first growing season for a cane, the color will change from whitish green to a purple or red color in Autumn, and the cane will hold this color through the next growing season. Come Spring, the now 2nd year cane will produce leaves, but also flowers and fruits. At the end of this growing season, the 2nd year cane will die. It can be removed, or left for Winter cover for the birds.
Transplanting existing Black Raspberry plants
Black Raspberry plants are one of the easiest plants to move around in the Spring. The purple canes are a dead giveaway to their location. And in early Spring they are dormant. Furthermore, their somewhat shallow woody roots mean you can easily dig them up and relocate them.
If you are going to move some plants, or spy some on a roadway, simply ask the homeowner if you are able to dig up a few for your own use. Since few people actually pick Black Raspberries, most would not mind as long as you don’t leave holes. So, bring a small bag of topsoil with you to fill in any holes.
But to transplant them, simply bring some empty pots and a spade. Then, just dig a 3″ circle around the cane. Have your shovel at a 45-60 degree angle and pop out the cane. Place it, with the soil into an empty pot. Then, go home and plant your plant! It is that easy.
This method is how I gained most of my plants at my home. There is a powerline cut in my neighborhood owned by an HOA. I simply got permission, and my son and I went and relocated about 5 plants. Now we have about 20 plants 3-4 years later!
How to Grow Black Raspberry from Seed
This specific species of raspberry, Rubus Occidentalis is notoriously difficult to grow from seed. Academic researchers consistently have trouble reaching germination rates greater than 10%.  And, when they do secure germination it is often using methods not easily available to backyard gardeners such as Gibberellic acid and Potassium Nitrate. Many anecdotes also exist abound stating that it may take double dormancy (two warm moist periods followed by two cold-moist periods), or needs scarification.
My only advice would be to try a combination of methods. I’m currently undergoing my own experiment using four treatments of 20 seeds each (n=20). A combination of scarification via citric acid, warm-moist stratification followed by cold-stratification. Wish me luck, and check back here in Spring of 2023! Hopefully I will have some nice results to share.
How to spread Black Raspberry through rooting
One surefire way to gain new Black Raspberry plants is to simply root existing stalks in early Spring before buds have formed. A very easy method to double your plants is to bend a first year cane over and place the tip or part of the vine into dirt. Then, put a rock on top of it so that it makes good contact with the soil. New roots will form where this tip of the cane is in the dirt. 
Just poking the tip of the young cane into the soil and making sure it is covered by dirt with a rock or something similar will ensure rooting. Doing this method ensures that you will have a new root stock isolated from the original. So, the following year it will sprout new canes….and the cycle continues!
Identification and characteristics of Black Raspberry
The following sections should help you identify Black Raspberry when there is no fruit present on the plants. It doesn’t take much research to become an expert at spotting thickets of Black Raspberries at 50 mph in Winter!
While Black Raspberry is a perennial shrub, it will produce new canes each year. Each cane will live for two years.
First year canes are a very light green, or white-green color and hairless. There will be small thorns on the cane. No fruit or flowers will be produced on first year canes. During the Fall/Winter these first year canes will turn from white to purple or brownish-red. 
Second year canes are the aforementioned purple-red color. These will produce flowers and fruit on short branches that develop in Spring. After their second year, they will die and begin decomposing.
Black Raspberry plants have alternate compound leaves that are generally trifoliate, with the middle leaf having a short petiole (stem) while the other two have no stem and are sessile. Individual leaflets are 2-3″ long by 1-2″ across and ovate in shape. They will have serrated margins. The underside of the leaves have many small white hairs. 
Racemes of flowers will grow in tight clusters on second year Black Raspberry canes. Each flower will have 5 white petals with 5 green sepals on the back, and be a bit prickly. There will be many stamens coming out of the flower. 
Blooming occurs in late Spring / early Summer for about 2-3 weeks. Once the flowers fade, a cluster of drupes (the berry) will form in it’s place starting as a green color, eventually turning to red and then black when ripe.
Berries are generally 1/4-3/8″ diameter and hemispherical in shape. You can think of an individual berry (drupe) as a cluster of small juice-filled fruits (drupelets). Each small drupelet, will contain a seed. The seeds of Black Raspberry are very tiny but have an interesting texture when viewed under magnification. 
Black Raspberry Root
The root system of Black Raspberry is a branching woody tap-root. When the plants are dormant, they transplant quite well. 
Harvesting Black Raspberries
Black Raspberries will ripen in late Spring or Early Summer. The ‘berry’ picking season is about 2-3 weeks. Plants in sunnier locations will have berries ready for harvest earlier, while plants in shadier conditions will produce a bit later in the season. 
To be efficient at picking raspberries, I use a small ‘lunch’ cooler with a strap. I drape the strap over my neck, and that way I can work with two hands. I am able to fill this container quite quickly depending on how heavy the canes are with berries.
Eating Black Raspberries
Black Raspberries can be eaten fresh or frozen for future use. But any recipe that calls for berries, you can use Black Raspberry. Whether it is jam, muffins, ice cream or pancakes Black Raspberry will add value!
10 Ways to eat Black Raspberry
- Fresh, eaten
- Mixed in yogurt
- Mixed in vanilla ice cream (my personal favorite)
- Black Raspberry muffins
- Jams and jellies
- Black Raspberry muffin bread crumble
- As a topping on pancakes
- As an addition to coffee cake
- Black Raspberry crisp
- As a topping to salads
Shelf life of Black Raspberry, preservation
The shelf-life of freshly picked Black Raspberries is quite short. You can eat freshly picked Black Raspberries for up to 5-7 days if promptly refrigerated. If the raspberries have been rinsed, this shelf-life will typically shrink to 48 hours. The reason for this reduction in shelf-life is that the added moisture usually breeds a white-fuzzy fungus.
When I first began foraging for Black Raspberries years ago I quickly learned that if you rinse them, you had better dry them enough so that no exterior moisture is present. If you do not do this, you have 48 hours to eat or freeze them, lest the white fungus takes hold.
Preserving Black Raspberries
The best way to preserve Black Raspberries is to freeze or dry them. But fruit can be canned, or preserved as a jelly as well.
Freezing Black Raspberries
The best method of freezing Black Raspberries is to first freeze them (individually, not as a clump or mass) on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper, separated from one another. Then transfer the berries into a freezer bag or container, as that way the berries won’t freeze in a solid mass. Frozen Black Raspberries can last for a year or more.
Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Black Raspberry
Flowers from Black Raspberries attract many bees. Over 15 species have been documented including bumblebees, mason bees, leaf-cutters, and honey bees. 
Birds eating the fruit is one of the primary ways Black Raspberries spread. As the birds digest the seed, they make the hard outer coating of the seed thinner. So, when the pass the seed, they are likely creating new plants.   
The fruits will also attract a variety of mammals including bear, chipmunks, fox, opossum, raccoon, squirrels, and mice. As these animals eat the fruit, their digestive system will likely thin the seed coating, which will make it more likely to germinate the following Spring. 
There are numerous insects that will feed on the foliage and bore into the vines of Black Raspberry plants. These rarely overwhelm and kill a plant, and I certainly do nothing to stop them. But, notable pests would be stink bugs and aphids.
In reality unless you are farming Black Raspberry, you probably do not need to concern yourself with any of these pests.
No significant diseases effect Black Raspberry plants.
Where you can buy Black Raspberry
Black Raspberry is not typically sold in nurseries, as it isn’t a typical ‘garden friendly’ plant. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.
Also, there are various varieties of Black Raspberry cultivated for their fruit production or other properties. Some varieties that are available include ‘Haunt’, ‘Jewel’, and ‘Munger’.  Other common varieties include ‘dusky’, ‘fuschia’, and rubel.
For seed, your best bet is to locate some plants and save the seed yourself. With a small strainer it isn’t that hard of a job to do. Just don’t let the seed dry out!
Uses of Black Raspberry
One can use Black Raspberry as a hedge or bordering plant in front of a home. They do well on any side of a structure except the West, as in many climates the Western sun exposure can put too much of a moisture demand on the plant, leading to reduced fruiting.
If you had an area you didn’t want people, or as a passive burglar prevention planting, Black Raspberry can fill that role. The thorns of Black Raspberry are tinier than other members of the Rubus genus, but they will still hurt and no person would want to walk through them to get in a window or something else. While at the same time, the berries will attract birds to right in front of a window. They won’t grow taller than 3-4′, as the canes will arch or grow horizontal. And, you can easily train them to grow where you want them to grow.
Black Raspberry makes a great border plant, at the edge of the woods, or in a ditch that gets some afternoon shade. This plant has a spreading nature, although it spreads via new canes making ground contact and from seed spread by birds or other animals.
For some flowers that share preferred growing conditions of Black Raspberry, try Red Bee Balm, Cardinal Flower, and Turtlehead. All share similar growing conditions preferences. They also would provide more color throughout the year.
Black Raspberry does play well with other plants, as it can be trained. But in a wild setting, one can use other fruit producing shrub/trees as boundaries to keep Black Raspberry in check. Some plants that would do a good job at this would be Gooseberry, Prickly Ash, Eastern Red Cedar, and Serviceberry.
Native American Uses
Over 60 uses of Black Raspberry has been documented by twelve different Native American Tribes. The most obvious and common use being as food. But, it was used medicinally as well.
Some uses include an infusion of leaves for childbirth pain, a gynecological aid, root was chewed to treat coughing, an infusion was also taken for boils on the skin. 
There has been substantial preclinical studies on the effects of Black Raspberry in the form of a freeze dried powder, with indications that it can help prevent cancers of the mouth and esophagus. The berries have high concentrations of ellagic acid, which research has found to be anticarcinogenic and inhibit tumor growth.
The Black Raspberry is a native deciduous fruit-bearing shrub with numerous garden applications. From a natural foundation plant near a home, a hedge row, a cultivated crop for food, or a thicket for wildlife – it has many uses and all of them benefit the local environment.
It is easy to grow and propagate existing plants, easy to take care of in it’s proper growing conditions, and the berries are delicious to boot. This is a powerful plant for the health and well being of wildlife and humans alike. And, you can often get free plants from landowners!
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