Wildlife & Nature to See in September : BramblesThe autumn harvest is well underway
Wildlife to See in September : Brambles (Rubus fruiticosa)
I have long believed the humble bramble to be one of Britain’s most under-appreciated plant species. People complain of its ability to take over a garden, sending thorny shoots out across prized rose bushes and carefully painted sheds. But let us not forget that these are features of resilience, and the human equivalent of the bramble is a Cockney wide boy, always scraping a living with a new scheme in the pipeline.
The plant flowers with pink or white blossom during the summer, but it is best known for its delicious purple fruit, ripe for picking in late August and September. But surprisingly, in a botanical sense the blackberry isn’t a ‘berry’-each tiny juicy ‘blob’ on the blackberry represents a tiny fruit or drupelet, and there are many of them so it is an aggregate fruit (a drupe is a fruit that has a fleshy, outer part that surrounds a stone or seed; a drupelet is a tiny drupe)
The beauty of the blackberry bush is that everybody knows one, whether a feature of a regular walk or the bane of a proud gardener, but few people are aware of the multitude of life supported by their spiny branches. I often think of my neighbour’s bramble as an ecosystem in its own right, as it heaves with bumble bees, lacewings, butterflies, grasshoppers, hoverflies and wasps, provides shelter for over-heated frogs and sustains hungry garden birds such as robins and thrushes. And that’s just a town garden- in wilder settings the bramble can host rabbits, pheasants, dormice and the leaves provide food for several species of deer.
Being a native species, brambles have been utilised over the years by farmers as hedgerows. According to the English Hedgerow Trust, “over 600 plant species, 1500 insects, 65 birds and 20 mammals have been recorded at some time living or feeding in hedgerows. Over 100 species of invertebrates can be found in a typical 20-metre section of hedgerow”. Also to be remembered is the importance of hedgerows as “corridors” for species who find farmland too exposed, like hedgehogs and amphibians, and who use them for navigation, such as bats and owls.
Love them or loathe them, brambles and blackberries have long been a feature of the British landscape, as shown in the hundreds of literary references to them, including the famous “Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney,
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes.
The poem is a reminder that sterile modern childhood is nothing in comparison with getting your fingers stained purple, and the sheer wonder of collecting anything in a jam jar! The plant has also been appreciated by writers from Sylvia Plath to Beatrix Potter, and in my view blackberries are infinitely more tempting than Mr McGregor’s garden.
So, wildlife-friendly, great for getting the kids outdoors and involved in nature, not to mention useful for farmers and their livestock. In a time when self-sustainability is suddenly in vogue, a nutritious, prolific fruit which can be easily identified and collected ought to be celebrated, and I would be the first to celebrate a national Blackberry Day.
For information about the English Hedgerow Society visit http://www.pmt9991952.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/
To discover more about Seamus Heaney, visit http://www.seamusheaney.org/