Bramble or blackberry, friend or foe? I can afford to regard the bramble as a friend because I don’t have any in my garden. Another (human) friend, who is slowly reclaiming an overgrown allotment, reports that brambles (along with nettles and convolvulus, which are less delicious) are her best crop this year. It is telling that the RHS website has a page on ‘Brambles and other woody weeds’, which urges that ‘prompt action can prevent problems and using the right methods lightens the work of dealing with thickets of robust weeds’. As John Gerard remarked in his Herball (1597), ‘The bramble groweth for the most part in every hedge and bush.’
But I, Schadenfreude being my middle name, just harvest the fruit in the (relatively) wild, and use them to make cassis, from the recipe in The Morville Year by Katherine Swift, but substituting blackberries for the traditional blackcurrants, which in this neck of the woods are not offered as pick-your-own, and are on sale only in tiny quantities in plastic boxes (I blame Mr Ribena); nor, alas, is my own single bush very productive (I blame me).
Things called brambles are native to North and South America, Europe and Asia. Taxonomically, the bramble is Rubus fruticosus (Linnaeus 1753), and is very closely related to the raspberry, Rubus idaeus (ditto – did Linnaeus think the plant came from the Cretan or Trojan Mount Ida?). They are in the Rosaceae family, and cross-breeding between the two has produced the loganberry (Rubus × loganobaccus – not, as I had assumed, from Logan in Scotland, but from California, where in 1881, Judge James Harvey Logan (1841–1928), a keen gardener, had the Pacific or Californian dewberry (Rubus ursinus) and a raspberry ‘Red Antwerp’ growing close together, and hit the genetic jackpot.
Further cross-breeding has since led to the tayberry (which was bred in Scotland, released in 1979), the boysenberry (Rudolph Boysen, Calfornia, 1920s), the Phenomenal Berry (!) (one of the hundreds of fruit and flower hybrids produced by the American hybridist Luther Burbank), the youngberry (Byrnes M. Young, a correspondent of Burbank, Louisiana 1905), the nessberry (Helge Ness, Norwegian-American botanist, 1920s); to say nothing of the chehalemberry, the ollalieberry (‘ollalie’ means ‘berry’ in the Chinook language, apparently) and the marionberry, all bred by George Waldo of the US Department of Agriculture in the 1930s.
Added to these of course are the probable hundreds of naturally arising crosses which can produce black raspberries, red and pink blackberries, etc., etc. And what is interesting about all this hybridisation is that none of the offspring plants are grown in anything like as great numbers as their blackberry and raspberry parents, because they are more fussy growers, or with fruit that’s difficult to harvest without damage. Picking, by the way, is one way to tell a blackberry from a raspberry: the ‘receptacle’ of the latter (the core from which the druplets hang) is left on the stalk when you pick it, but blackberries come off with the receptacle still inside, hence their occasional ‘toughness’.
The etymology of ‘bramble’ is from OE ‘brembel’ or ‘braembel’, Middle Low German ‘braam’: modern German is ‘brombeere’. Old English literary references seem mostly to occur in the context of wild, desert or uncultivated places: ‘briar’, with its thorns, now mostly used of the wild rose, was also used of brambles. Where the KJV has thistles contrasted with wheat in Job 31.40, Wyclif has a briar, and in books of husbandry and gardening, the bramble or briar is synonymous with bad or lazy practice. And of course there’s Shakespeare: ‘Over hill, over dale, / Thorough bush, thorough briar, / Over park, over pale, / Thorough flood, thorough fire.’ (To say nothing of ‘Feed him with apricocks and dewberries’ …)
Gardeners are often urged to leave a ‘wild patch’ in their gardens to encourage animals from insects to frogs, toads and snakes, and mammals such as the hedgehog. My problem is that although I’m willing in practice (and I do have frogs and the occasional hedgehog) the total size of my garden is not much more than a patch. (And Monty (@TheMontyDon), you can do little wrong in my eyes, but I wish you wouldn’t go on about having odd spare spaces for nursery beds, cutting gardens and catch crops.) But it’s true that brambles provide both food and homes for a surprising numbers of critters: remember Br’er Rabbit (‘born and bred in a briar patch, Br’er Fox’)?
The cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) a far-northern relation of the bramble, is the only food plant of the choosy larva of the rather wispy moth, Coleophora thulea.
A very widely distributed Eurasian moth, the peach blossom (Thyatira batis), needs any variety of Rubus;
and dozens of other moths, from the emperor to the garden tiger, all partake as a part of a healthy mixed diet. The flowers are nectar-rich, and attract butterflies and hoverflies, including the transparent-winged Volucella pellucens, the virtues of which include laying its eggs inside wasp nests: when they hatch, the larvae feed on wasp larvae.
And of course, birds, mice, voles, foxes, badgers and humans (to name but a few) eat the fruit.
Traditional medicinal uses include the use of the roots to treat diarrhoea and dysentery, and chewing the leaves is allegedly good for toothache. Blackberry leaf tea is full of vitamin C, but can be dangerous to pregnant women as it stimulates labour pains. (Conversely, this effect caused it to be used to speed up childbirth.) But the oddest use I have come across is in making bee skeps: these old-fashioned beehives constructed from braided straw are held together by strips of twisted bramble stems.
Skeps are emblematic of old-fashioned virtues of rural industry and collaboration, but I had no idea how impractical they are as a home for bees: the insects can’t be inspected for problems, and the harvesting of the honey involves destroying the skep, and often the bees too.
There are some decorative brambles, grown especially for their stem colour in winter, of which the best known are R. Cockburnianus (from China) and R. Thibetanus, aka the ‘ghost bramble’ (from Tibet), whose young shoots are grey-white, and look as though they have been painted, or dusted with frost.
R. thibetanus speaks for itself – it was discovered in western Tibet by the famous missionary Père Armand David (he of the giant panda, the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata) and the eponymous deer), and named in 1885 – but I’ve been trying without success to find out who among the Cockburn family was being honoured by by William Botting Hemsley when he named this newly discovered species in 1893. Another attractive variety is R. tricolor, of which the stems are densely covered in what look like red hairs rather than prickles (the fruit is also red).
Finally, the bramble in art: look at these amazing details from Dutch flower paintings.
The bramble may indeed be a terrible nuisance in the wrong place, but it’s another of those everyday wonders at which we should perhaps stop and stare more often.