Sandy’s Garden ... Brambles

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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I seem to discover, on an almost daily basis, that I don’t really know much about things with which I thought myself passably knowledgeable.

As an example of this, I would … until very recently … have asserted with complete confidence that the name ‘bramble’ was the Scots term for the fruit which the English call the ‘blackberry.’ Not so. I learn, to my surprise, that the bramble is, in the United Kingdom, any rough, tangled prickly shrub, usually … but not exclusively … the blackberry bush (Rubus fruticosa) or any hybrid of similar appearance. Cross the Atlantic, however, and ‘bramble’ is the name assigned to almost any member of the Rubus family, particularly to Rubus idaeus, which we would call the ‘raspberry.’

Well, one thing which I have known for many years is that brambles grow readily on the sides of the railway cutting behind my home; and another thing I have known for many years is that these plants are very happy to colonise my garden, their berries eaten by birds which then disperse the seed unaffected by their digestive systems. I also know that the sharp prickles on the stems and the deep, suckering roots make the bramble seedlings the very devil to uproot unless the gardener catches them very young. But another thing which I didn’t know is that brambles neither flower nor set fruit until their second year; and yet another is that the individual units which make up the bramble berry … and it’s not really a ‘berry’, but an ‘aggregate fruit’ … are called ‘drupelets.’ And one further piece of information which came as a surprise is that, in some parts of England, people used to believe that the berries should not be gathered after St. Michael’s Day, which is next Sunday, 29 September. Apparently, when the devil was cast out of paradise, he (why is the devil always ‘he’?) landed in a bramble bush and berries picked after Michaelmas Day have the devil in them. And, just in case any reader wonders about the connection between Michaelmas Day and the devil, Michael is generally accorded the credit for having expelled the devil from heaven.

Continuing on the theme of a thousand-and-one things I never knew, we come to the bramble as a cure for whooping cough. Our ancestors believed that a sure cure for this affliction was to find a bramble stem which had looped over and made a second contact with the ground, where its suckering habit had caused it to take root, making the stem a living bramble hoop. In some areas a child suffering from whooping cough had to be passed under this hoop nine times on a single morning for the illness to be cured; in other areas, the sick child had to be passed over and under the bramble hoop nine times on each of three successive mornings, before sunrise, to effect a cure; and in yet other parts of the country, it was sufficient to crawl underneath the hoop for the beneficial effects to be felt. (Should any reader be tempted to try any of these supposed remedies, be sure to wear old clothes, for the thorns are certain sure to engage in any good clothing and, at this time of year, any juice which gets on to clothing from the berries will leave a hard-to-remove stain.)

It was also said that bramble bushes kept snakes away and, while I might dismiss that as unlikely, I can say that, in all the years I have lived in my present home, I have never seen a snake in or near my garden … and nor do I want to, thank you very much! And finally we come to a belief which I did hold and which I still understand to be correct; brambles are rich in vitamins C and E and these, together with the polyphenols which they also contain, make the berry one of the top fruits in the antioxidant stakes. This means that they can help prevent some cancers and the stave off the risk of strokes and heart disease. They are also very tasty!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society