The bramble or blackberry is a member of the rose family and not actually a single species, but an aggregate of some 2000 very similar micro species. It is a scrambling perennial shrub that is commonly found in hedgerows, woodlands and waste ground. It is happy in poor soil and quickly colonises untended or ungrazed land and is difficult to eradicate from a neglected garden. The shoots may grow to 6m long or even more.
The plant sends out viciously prickly biennial arching shoots that grow vigorously without flowering in their first year, bearing prickly toothed leaves, comprising 5-7 toothed and heavily veined leaflets. The shoots take root wherever they touch the ground.
In the shoot’s second year it does not grow in length, but produces flowering side shoots and smaller leaves comprising 3-5 leaflets.
The flowers, which appear from June onwards in groups on the side shoots, usually have 5 white or pale pink petals.
These are followed by the blackberries – technically not a fruit, but a cluster of drupes. These are green as they begin to develop, turning red through purple to black as they ripen. The ruit are easy to distinguish from the raspberry when they are picked – the raspberry detaches from the plant leaving its core behind on the plant so each picked berry has a hollow centre. The white core or torus of the blackberry detaches with the the fruit.
The plant is very important to wildlife. The flowers are popular with bees and the leaves are food for several species of caterpillars and deer enjoy grazing on them. The fruit are eaten by many species of birds and mammals who disperse the seeds in their droppings. The dense bramble thickets provide valuable cover and nest sites.
Man has used the bramble extensively too. Though we enjoy gathering the wild berries from our hedgerows, cultivated varieties have been developed to produce larger fruit with better flavour and without those vicious thorns. Preparations of the plant have been used in folk medicine for all manner of ailments: the leaves have been chewed to relieve bleeding gums; a tea made from all parts of the plant has been used to cure whooping cough and the roots used to cure dysentery and diarrhoea. The Ancient Greeks used it as a cure for gout. It has also been used to treat stomach ulcers. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and has been used against scurvy.
The berries leaves and shoot tips can be used for dyeing. Native Americans have used the stems to make rope. The plant also provides an impenetrable barrier to protect stock and property and keep large animals and enemies out.
Blackberrying, or foraging for the berries in late summer or early autumn is a popular pastime – at one time the autumn half-term school holiday was known as Blackberry Week. The fruit makes delicious jams, jellies, pies and crumbles, often in combination with apples. It is also used to make the French liqueur Creme de mur, which is the key ingredient of a bramble – a cocktail which also includes gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup.
Folklore decreed that blackberries must not be picked after Michaelmas Day (October 11th). After this the devil was believed to have spoilt the berries by trampling, fouling or spitting on them. After this time the fruit would often be mouldy or beginning to decompose. It was also traditionally planted on graves, to stop sheep grazing (or some believed to keep the dead in!)
As the blackberries ripen on our local hedgerows I’ll have to pick some. But what to make….jam? jelly? pies? I might even try making blackberry and apple gin liqueur – I tried it a few year back and it was delicious!
Have you picked any blackberries yet this year? What have you made with them?