For wild blackberry lovers, the days of heaven have arrived.
Those invasive brambles - which seem to grow everywhere - begin to ripen about mid-August across Western Washington, promising a surprisingly sweet and refreshing treat for hikers, backroads travelers and even urban pedestrians.
"The first blackberries are out now, but that's just the tip. They ripen towards the root," said Jennifer Hahn of Bellingham, author of "Pacific Feast," a 2010 book about West Coast foraging.
Hahn, who is also a wilderness guide and an adjunct professor at Western Washington University's Fairhaven College, thinks the wet spring and warm summer will produce a great season for blackberries.
"All this heat we've had lately, I bet we're going to have a bumper crop," she said. "There are so many blackberries dropping off the bushes that are green - I've never seen it like this before."
Most blackberries found in the Northwest are of the Himalayan variety that's native to Armenia. They were introduced to North America in the 1800s but spread like wildfire, their seeds distributed by birds and other animals, and they've become omnipresent across the Northwest.
They aren't a true berry, but rather an aggregate fruit composed of tiny drupelets. The sharp points that grow along their canes are not thorns, but rather a botanical structure called a prickle.
Hahn said many Northwesterners have a "love-hate relationship" with the Himalayan blackberry because it tastes so delicious, even though it's officially an invasive species.
But Hahn relishes the region's native blackberries, also called the tripberry, distinguished by its trailing runners and smaller drupelet clusters.
"It's like merlot," she said. "The best spectrum of flavor is found in our Northwest blackberries."
Bellingham's South Bay Trail boasts some wonderfully sweet blackberry bushes, especially those on sections of the route south of Taylor Dock and north of Boulevard Park, where many hikers were picking a handful or two last weekend.
Other good places to pick blackberries in Bellingham are near Connelly Creek in Happy Valley, all along the Interurban Trail, and around Lake Padden - especially near the dog park, Hahn said.
But Hahn advises against picking berries from thickets along Samish Way on Lake Padden Park's periphery, because of pollution from the heavy traffic.
"Casual munching is great," she said. "But I always tell people not to eat right by the roadside, especially not a busy urban road."
Bushes along residential streets might contain fewer chemicals from automobile exhaust or household runoff, but Hahn suggests that people avoid blackberries that grow less than 50 feet from a road.
When Hahn goes on a serious berry-picking adventure, she wears long sleeves, jeans and even a denim jacket so her clothes aren't damaged by the prickers. She often carries a big piece of cardboard to act as a shield when punching through deep thickets. A small folding stepladder wouldn't hurt either, she said.
Pickers are advised to use wide shallow dishes and to avoid piling berries more than four or five inches deep in the bowl. Berries shouldn't be washed until they're ready to use, because water will make them spoil faster.
Although blackberries are great for munching, Hahn likes to go past the traditional jams, crisps, cobblers and pies, using blackberries in main dishes such as Blackberry Spot Prawns with Creamy Polenta, which is featured in her book.
Google search "cooking with blackberries" and you'll find a treasure trove of recipes, including Pork Chops with Blackberry Port Sauce at allrecipes.com and an endless list of cobbler recipes at cooks.com.
What Hahn enjoys most is the camaraderie that develops when groups of people, especially friends and families, go picking together.
"I think what people love most about foraging is that it's free," she said. "But at heart, we're all hunter-gatherers. It takes us back to childhood. When people forage together, it's like doing something that's been done for thousands of years.
"Somehow, in our very makeup - in our bones and selves - we get into nature and we find something. Magic happens."
ROBERT MITTENDORF is a Herald copy editor and page designer. Suggest your ideas for local family-friendly events or day trips at 360-756-2805 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.