Habitat is the Key! Blackberries are in full bloom in mid-Missouri, and my mouth is watering for some blackberry cobbler!
Regarding the title of this article, I am not necessarily referring to the fire used to cook quail and cobbler, but more along the lines of fire that will improve quail and blackberry living conditions…the more blackberries, the more cobbler you can enjoy; that is my motto!! We have preached for several years about the reliance that quail have on fire. We have also talked about the need for quail to have 10 to 25 percent of their range in shrubs, like blackberries or loose brush piles. What we have not talked about are the benefits that fire can have on rejuvenating a blackberry patch, thereby making it better for quail. The other benefit that THIS blackberry cobbler aficionado thinks about is that fire can result in the production of more blackberry fruit and during adequate rainfall…bigger blackberries. Really, it’s true! Blackberries evolved with fire, just like quail did. They were all meant for each other.
Blackberry fruit is produced on 2-year-old canes, so fire will knock out fruit production for one year. But in year two watch out! Fire should be timed for the dormant season, after blackberries have lost their leaves, for maximum results.
Prior to the predominance of fescue and smooth brome on the landscape, blackberry patches harbored an unfathomable number of quail coveys. However, today’s blackberries are smothered in an understory of grass or dead leaves, and the quail do not use them to any degree. You can rejuvenate a blackberry patch for quail by spraying out the fescue or brome understory. This works best after your fire, as the grass greens up, but before the blackberry canes begin resprouting. You may use glyphosate according to label directions for fescue eradication. Fire will top kill blackberry canes, so it is safe to use glyphosate before the canes resprout. However, DO NOT spray glyphosate on sprouted blackberries or otherwise live (unburned) blackberry canes, or you may never see another blackberry cane there again! I have really hammered blackberry while trying to spray out fescue at the base of older canes.
If the blackberry canes have already sprouted you should use a grass-only herbicide. I have used the maximum rate of Poast and Fusilade on fescue with about three inches of new growth after a burn and knocked it out. I have had mixed results when the fescue was taller. It will not affect the live blackberry canes and resprouts.
Several of us have experimented with throwing a few hands full of blackberry fruit into edge feathering and downed tree structures. Blackberries readily sprout, creating more blackberry patches that will be there long after the brush decays away. Blackberries really like this habitat, you should have already killed the grass and the berry canes can use the limbs in the brushpiles as support and protection during their growth. The blackberries seem to put more into fruiting in these situations.
There is a number of species of blackberry that are found in Missouri including an invasive species from Asia that forms tall, extremely dense and extremely invasive shrubs. They are so dense that quail will typically use just the very edges of the thicket. Native blackberries produce single upright canes 3- to 6-foot tall that spread by underground rhizomes. They are typically spaced a few feet apart making them fit the recipe for quail covey headquarters.
Speaking of recipes, my favorite cobbler recipe comes out of the 1995 Dekalb County Missouri Sesquicentennial Recipe Book and is called Yummy Cobbler:
Turn your oven to 350 degrees. Put one quart of thawed blackberries into a 9-by-9-inch pan.
Mix up the batter: ¾ cup sugar, 3 tbsp butter, ½ cup milk, 1 cup flour, ½ tsp salt, 1 tsp baking powder
Mix up the sugar topping in a separate bowl: ½ cup sugar, 1 tbsp corn starch, ¼ tsp salt
Pour up to 1 cup of boiling water over the blackberries, however big juicy berries only need about half this amount of water. Then pour on the batter as evenly as possible. Sprinkle the sugar topping over the batter (I typically don’t put on all the topping--you can only take so much sugar!). Bake for a minimum of 45 minutes until the crust browns in the center. Very quick and very simple and very tasty.
Use fire to rejuvenate blackberries and quail. If the understory of the blackberry patch is grass, kill it with herbicides after greenup. This has whetted my appetite; I gotta make some cobbler…RIGHT NOW.