Go ahead, pick those wild blackberries — but don't say James Quinn didn't warn you.
The regional horticulture specialist for University of Missouri Extension used to recommend blackberry hunting as a fun family outing. But now with the antioxidant-rich berries at risk for spotted wing drosophila damage, he's hesitant.
"Sometimes it gets into the berries badly," he said. "We really don't tell people, 'Hey, you should go pick wild blackberries — it's great!' because they might have worms in them."
Spotted wing drosophila-damaged berries will not make you sick. They don't carry the same disease risks as ticks and mosquitoes. Concerns are basically aesthetic; no one wants to eat bugs.
The tiny pest entered Missouri's fruit scene in 2013. A type of fruit fly gnat, it lays eggs in the fruit before it matures. It's been known to attack other fruit species such as peaches and tomatoes, but holds a special preference for blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and grapes.
You might not notice damage to a blackberry from a spotted wing drosophila as easily as you might if the plant had seen a visit from, say, a hungry deer. The berry will likely still be intact, but might not appear as firm.
"It's not easy to tell," Quinn said.
It's not impossible, though. The horticulturist recommends looking for "mushy berry syndrome" — the berry will be less than firm, even when ripe.
"That's a dead giveaway," he said.
For more accurate detection, try the sugar or salt method. Place a handful of berries — selected either at random or because of a suspected infestation — in a small plastic bag. Lightly crush the bag to break the berries' skin. Meanwhile, combine an eighth of a cup of salt or sugar with 2 cups warm water. Add the sugar- or salt-water solution to the berries, then monitor the mixture. If larvae are present, they will escape the fruit.
What if you feel like munching a handful of blackberries without the hassle of bug searching?
You can buy them at the grocery store, but prepare to spend. Pound for pound, blackberries are pricier than easier-harvested crops such as corn or soy.
In Missouri, conditions are right to grow your own. Some domestic blackberries, such as those at Danamay Farm north of Fulton, have another advantage — no thorns.
Owner Amy Craighead encourages folks to pick early in the morning, to avoid heat. As for pest management, she would consider spraying against the spotted wing drosophila only if absolutely necessary.
"We generally don't spray insecticides very often, because we don't want to put much on fruit that people are consuming," she said.
2 ripe bananas
2 cups fresh or frozen blackberries, rinsed and picked over
3 scoops vanilla protein powder
2 cups almond milk
Blend all ingredients.
Makes 3 servings.