Sandy’s Garden ... Thieves

Gardening correspondent Sandy Simpson
Gardening correspondent Sandy Simpson
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The sachet of weedkiller has the following instructions.

“Sprinkle liquid on to weeds ensuring they are thoroughly wetted. 4.5 litres (1 gallon) will treat 17 sq m (20 sq yds). Ed.) ... will not control deep-rooted perennials such as ground elder and brambles.”

Now that’s a pity, for the product doubtless does exactly what it says on the sachet, though I’d be very happy if it would do more; for I have thieves growing in my garden; and I want rid of them!

Julius Caesar knew these plants, although he did not call them thieves. He called the plant rubus and, when the Swedish professor Carl Linné undertook his self-imposed task of categorising the inhabitants of the plant world into one catalogue of internationally-recognisable names in the middle of the eighteenth century, he gave that Latin name to the family of plants ... the genus ... of which this shrub is a member ... a species. So the plant we are considering is Rubus fruticosus ... the member of the Rubus family which is best known for its edible fruits - fruticosus. Other members of the rubus genus include Rubus idaeus, Rubus loganobaccus and Rubus spectabilis. And if this is all Greek ... or Latin ... to you, let me quickly say that Rubus idaeus is commonly called the raspberry, Rubus loganobaccus is the Loganberry and Rubus spectabilis is the salmonberry. And Rubus fruticosus? Now we call that the bramble in Scotland, while the English sometimes refer to it as the blackberry.

The technical description of the Rubus family is, “a genus of 250 or more species of often prickly or bristly, deciduous or evergreen shrubs and climbers found worldwide in a range of habitats from coastal sand dunes to thickets, woodland, forest, and mountain slopes.” The bramble is by far the best-known naturally-occurring member of the family and has quite a variety of local names in Great Britain - gatter tree, ladies garters, hawksbill, and ... wonderfully for a plant known in some places as country lawyers ... thieves! Yes indeed, brambles are called thieves in some parts of Britain.

Yet the bramble was once regarded as having many virtues that would suggest that a kinder name than thieves would have been in order. Its Gaelic name translates as “the blessed bramble,” for its branches were used in wreaths to protect people from the powers of evil; its leaves were used to treat burns and swellings; jam, jelly, wine and cordial were made from its berries; and its dried leaves were used as an alternative to tea. Some Gaelic-speaking ministers also taught that Jesus used a switch of bramble stems to drive the dishonest moneylenders out of the temple in Jerusalem ... but that is not where the name thieves came from. To find the explanation of that, we must cast our minds back to the days when every country cottage held a spinning wheel, and at every wheel sat a woman spinning tufts of wool collected from the bramble hedges which bounded the fields where the sheep were kept. That’s why brambles are called thieves in some parts of the country.

There’s a lovely country story of the cormorant, the bat and the bramble. The cormorant, the bat and the bramble were partners in a company set up to sell wool overseas. On one journey, their boat and all its cargo was lost at sea, which explains why the cormorant is always diving in search of the lost cargo; the bat owes money from this venture and hides from its creditors during the hours of daylight; and the bramble makes up its losses by stealing wool from passing sheep. But you must make up your own mind about why brambles are sometimes known as country lawyers!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society