In praise of the humble briar

Blog post by Robert Morgan on 30 Sep, 2020
The bramble or brier and countless other colloquial names, many of which are now lost to our tongue, are perhaps a sign of our endearment for the bountiful blackberry bush and evidence that its value runs deep into to our ancient history.

For me the bramble has become emblematic of a defiant English countryside, it is steeped in folklore and has an almost spiritual place in our rural literature. It is a plant for all seasons and no other plant captures a naturalist’s attention like the humble bramble, for it is essential throughout the year to a bewildering array of wildlife. Although I may hold the bramble dear to my heart, many consider it a nuisance weed. Its hardiness gives it a tendency to grow in neglected places, the garden of a run-down urban terrace, an abandoned allotment or cradling a seldom used shed; wherever it crops up, its stubborn roots and prickly thorns make it a tough character to control.

Water vole with blackberry, by Elizabeth Dack

Comma butterfly on blackberries, by Elizabeth Dack

When allowed to thrive it forms dense patches and being semi-evergreen provides food and shelter for virtually every hedgerow inhabitant. Growing on a bank, rabbits will conceal their burrow entrance deep in its entanglement. Their sworn enemy, the fox, feels safer when its den is beneath the shade of the bramble, and in tall grass a knot of it will encourage bank voles and field mice to prosper, hidden from the sharp eye of a kestrel. Of course weasels and stoats can fold their elongated bodies through its labyrinth in pursuit of rodent prey. Adders bask at its edge, ready to slip silently into its shadows. The harvest mouse, banished from wheat fields by modern farming, weaves its tennis ball size nest deep within the bristly barbs.

The wren, the whitethroat and the blackcap, along with a dozen other species of bird will build nests among its knitted thorns, finding both protection and a ready supply of insects close by. For it is insects that find brambles irresistible, without it many cannot survive. Several types of moth rely on bramble leaves for their caterpillars, the emperor moth, peach blossom moth and garden tiger being the most notable, with the grizzled skipper butterfly also favouring bramble leaves for their egg laying. If you look closely at the leaves they are often nibbled, stained or have the tell-tale signs of a leaf miners’ tunnels scrawling across them, for the bramble has to survive constant insect attacks. Despite this, it will still provide nectar rich pinky-white flowers throughout the summer and these are a draw to bees, butterflies and numerous other insects. On a sunny summer’s day, an hour spent staring at a flowery bramble patch is an entomologist’s dream.

We too have relied on brambles throughout the centuries, it was used for barriers and fencing in the way we use barbed wire now. The leaves were recommended for varied ailments and conditions from inducing child birth to curing arteritis, and in medieval-times brambles were encouraged to grow over new graves, either to keep evil spirits out or more probably the dead in. But of course the bramble is the provider of blackberries and there is barely a creature in the countryside that doesn’t saviour the succulent clusters of its fruity drupelets. The Celts even believed the plant to be a deity, for as the berries colour changed from white to red and then black, it represented the three aspects of their goddess: maiden, mother and old crone, and they would thank her through an elaborate ceremony for the gifts she provides.
Water vole with blackberry, by Elizabeth Dack

Water vole with blackberry, by Elizabeth Dack

So as the berries ripen, and like generations before us, say a little thank you as you pick them for your pie. But beware, old Norfolk folklore decrees that one never picks blackberries after the tenth of October, for the devil will spit upon them. This does make some sense as the sweet juicy berries of late summer can turn decidedly bitter by early autumn. Although, on a serious note, be mindful of your local wildlife and take the minimum you need as a great many creatures rely on this ‘crop from the briar’.

Header image: Spider web on bramble, by Zsuzsanna Bird

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