blackberry bramble, bramble flowers, bramble use in lip work basketry, importance of bramble flowers to insects, insects feeding on bramble flowers
Brambles have been flowering for a while now, but in the last couple of weeks they have reached a peak and many of the tangled shrubs are smothered with blossom. This is wonderful for insects that can gorge themselves on nectar without the need to expend energy flitting between different plants.
In the British Isles the term brambles is used to describe any rough, tangled prickly shrub, but more specifically applies to the Blackberry bush –Rubus fruticosa.
Bramble bushes have a distinctive growth form. They send up long, arching canes that do not flower or set fruit until the second year of growth. The shrub can easily become a nuisance in gardens, sending down its strong suckering roots amongst hedges and shrubs, but in the wild it has great importance for its conservation and wildlife value.
The flowers attract nectar-feeding butterflies, bees and hoverflies, and the leaves are important food plants for the larvae of several species of Lepidoptera.
Bramble leaves usually have trifoliate or palmately-compound leaves. Old leaves often remain on the stems throughout the winter until new shoots are produced.
Bramble fruits are aggregate fruits and each small round berry is called a drupelet. The blackberry flower receptacle is elongate and part of the ripe fruit, making the blackberry an aggregate-accessory fruit.
Traditional medicinal uses
A child afflicted with whooping, or chin-cough may have been passed through a blackberry or bramble shoot that had rooted naturally at either end; this was a gesture symbolic of rebirth in a perfect state. Herefordshire this treatment was enhanced: the Lord’s Prayer was recited whilst the patient, eating bread and butter, was passed nine times under the bramble arch. Sometimes a rhyme was added:
Under the briar and over the briar, I wish to leave the chincough here.
On the journey home the remains of the bread and butter were given to a passing animal or bird – “but never to a Christian”- and, as the bread was consumed, the cough would disappear. Other childhood diseases, rheumatism and boils were also cured with this procedure.
Another blackberry cure of repute was a burn lotion, made by floating 9 blackberry leaves in water from a holy well.
Mythology and legend
What is probably the earliest recorded parable is Jotham’s parable of “The trees choosing a King.” The first tree to be offered this distinction was the Olive, but the Olive was concerned with the business of producing oil, and so the Vine was approached. The Vine was too busy producing wine, and eventually the Bramble was requested to accept the offer, and the Bramble having nothing better to do, affably agreed.
Blackberries have multiple meanings across religious, ethnic and mythological realms. In all Celtic countries taboos attend the picking of blackberries; mid-Mediterranean folklore claims that Christ’s Crown of Thorns was made of blackberry runners. The deep colour of the berries represents Christ’s blood. They have been used in Christian art to symbolize spiritual neglect or ignorance.
In many English counties blackberries are never picked after Michaelmas Day on September 29th. Legend has it that the blackberry was once beautiful, but was cursed by Lucifer when he fell into the bush when he was forced out of heaven. Every September 30th, with the ripening and darkening of the berries, he is said to variously ‘wave his club over them’, ‘spit on them’, ‘curse them’ or ‘put his cloven hoof on them’.
Some folklore associates the blackberry with bad omens. European stories have claimed they are death fruits with ties to Wicca. They can also symbolize sorrow. In an old proverb they signify haste. A man is so excited to pick the berries that he jumps into the bush and the thorns cause him to lose his eyesight. He regains it, however, upon jumping back out of the bush.
Greek mythology contains a legend similar to this. When Bellerophon, a mortal, tries to ride Pegasus to Olympus, he falls and becomes blind and injured upon landing in a thorny bush. This is his punishment for trying to take the power of the gods. Therefore, the fruit also symbolizes arrogance.
Split bramble stems are traditionally used as binding material for straw in the production of lip work basketry, such as lip work chairs and bee skeps, and sometimes used to protect other fruits (strawberries).
Lip work is a technique where wheat straw is made into coils or ropes and then bound into shape with strips of bramble. In addition to tall backed chairs which protected the occupant from draughts, beehives, corn measures, baskets and trays were made. The photograph of the beautiful traditional straw skep beehive below is from the website of Martin Newton, a present-day maker of lip work basketry pieces. http://www.martinatnewton.com/page2.htm
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We’re a bit further north than you so that may be why, but the stages blackberries are at here varies according to their location. Those that I referred to in this post are on the Little Orme, a headland that is very exposed to cold winds and hot sun, so it’s a bit further behind than others that are more sheltered only a little further inland.
Emily Heath said:
Your brambles seem to be behind ours in London, the flowers are nearly all over here and I’m seeing blackberries already.
A lovely piece on blackberries and some beautiful pictures of butterflies.
Thank you, I enjoyed putting the post together and have been really fortunate to have seen so many gorgeous butterflies this year.
Steve Hallam said:
Thanks for a very interesting article. I’d never heard of lip work – are there many people still doing it?
Thank you for your kind comment. I did a bit of research for this post and it seems there are craftspeople keeping this very old traditional basketry art going. I discovered there is a ‘Guild of Straw Craftsmen’, so you may get a more informed answer from them http://www.strawcraftsmen.co.uk/links.php – I love the look of some of the pieces I’ve seen and quite fancy a chair myself.
Mine too, but I think that like you it may be in part because it brings back memories of blackberry picking for me too. My mum was always a townie at heart and didn’t generally relish country living, but she always came out with us kids to pick blackberries that she then made into jam, jellies and the most amazing pies.
Blackberries are my favourite berry fruit – and nothing compares to a blackberry and apple pie with lashing of custard – it’s my taste of early autumn and will always bring memories of blackberry picking in the Worcestershire hedgerows, with Dad using his walking stick to grab awkward brambles. Yummy!
Finn Holding said:
Fascinating stuff Theresa, and I like your small tortoiseshell. They have been thin on the ground in Cambridgeshire so far this year. The bramble thickets are providing nest sites for dunnock, whitethroat, linnet and house sparrow round here though.
The brambles have been growing like the clappers here, and are festooned with blossom, so I’m hoping that with the summery weather we will also get a good crop of sweet juicy blackberries in September. Last year their taste was sour and watery due to the wet weather throughout the summer, I don’t think they’d had enough sun to make the sugars. Fingers crossed for this year though.
Thank you Finn. We seem to have been quite lucky with the small tortoishells this summer and I’ve actually seen several together in the same locations a couple of times, which has been lovely and very unusual. I’m happy to here you’ve got plenty of nesting birds, my next post follows on from this one on that very theme. Hope you get better blackberries this year, maybe the proliferation of flowers and the rain we’re getting now will help – we just need perhaps just a bit more sun to seal the deal.
Finn Holding said:
Indeed so, I can feel a sun dance coming on!