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