Sandy’s Garden ... Rambles About Brambles

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

To live, as I do, alongside a railway line is something of a mixed blessing.

For the benefit of seclusion and relative quiet that it offers can be offset by the flora and fauna which find the same seclusion and relative quiet to their liking too. I suspect, gentle reader, that you may not be alone in wondering about my use of the words ‘relative quiet’ to describe a neighbouring railway line. But let me assure you that trains, although accompanied by a rush of sound, pass quickly and are then gone out of earshot, unlike traffic on a main road, which is no less noisy but whose noise continues throughout many of the twenty-four hours of the day.

But the wild flora and fauna which choose to share my neighbour’s land can sometimes be less th an entirely welcome. The excreta left by foxes in my garden is best left undescribed; the racket of a conventicle of magpies is a good reason for wearing ear defenders; the veritable snowstorm of silk-like plumes carrying the seeds of willow-herb on a windy Autumn day can drive the gardener to drink; and the profusion of bramble seedlings springing up where birds have deposited them in their droppings is as bad for the temper as it is for the hands! And it is the Scottish bramble of which I write, known to the majority of contemporary Englishmen and women as the blackberry and to the residents of parts of Ireland as the brier. We are all referring to the same plant, of course, a plant that formerly enjoyed a plethora of local names, being known within the Scottish border counties alone as lady’s garters and gatter-tree, with the fruit called variously blackbides, black bowours and garten-berries. In the Gaelic the plant was called an druise bennaichte … the blessed bramble … a name bestowed on it as a result of the legend that Christ used a bramble branch to drive the money-lenders out of the temple in Jerusalem.

The bramble, blackberry or brier … call it what you will … boasts the botanical name Rubus fruticosus … Rubus being the name by which the Romans knew the plant while fruticosus means ‘shrubby’ … grows wild throughout the British Isles and is native to much of Europe. An invasive plant, it has spread to every continent except Antarctica, although it does not thrive in tropical countries other than in the cooler mountain areas. As is pretty well known, bramble is a very prickly, scrambling, woody shrub with a perennial root system, although the above-ground shoots … or canes … die back after two years, to be replaced by fresh growth. It grows up to at least 2m … between 6 and 7 feet … in height, while the arching and entangling shoots that spring from the plant can stretch as much as 10m … 30 feet … from their parent. These stems readily form new plants by sending down roots where they touch the ground; and these roots spread out for 30cm or more (say, a foot) before heading off vertically downward until they reach a depth of a 1.5m … say, five feet … if the soil allows. The small flowers, which vary in colour from white to pink, appear between late May and August, to be succeeded by the berries which start off green and mature through red to the familiar black, which is when people pick them.

Traditionally, brambles should be gathered before Michaelmas Day … 29th September … because the Devil spits on them on that day. This did not in any way restrict the uses made of the plant by our ancestors, who used the leaves to treat burns and scalds; the berries to make syrup to treat sore throats and catarrh as well as wine and cordial; and the wood to carve into tobacco pipes. And the bramble plant offered a further bonus to our forebears, for the thorns of Rubus fruticosus growing round the edges of pasture snagged sheep’s wool which the canny housewife collected and spun into yarn on her spinning wheel.