With the early mists and slanting sunlight, the mornings are beginning to feel very autumnal. The leaves have not yet turned, but the hedgerows are full of fruits, and the birds have deserted my offered food for this abundant harvest. One of the most delicious and accessible of these hedgerow fruits is the blackberry. The plant is widespread, and an early flora, published in 1911, declares that a hedgerow without a blackberry bush “would seem to be sadly wanting”.
The blackberry or bramble, like the dandelion, is an apomictic plant. This means that, rather than a single species, there are a large number of slightly differing forms, which are sometimes called microspecies. A Handbook of the British Flora, published in 1858, notes the considerable variation, “especially in the prickles and hairs, and in the shape of the leaflets” leading to “an excessive multiplication of supposed species”. The later (1911) flora records the disagreement between botanists over the number of different forms. The author finds that “one text-book gives us the Blackberry pure and simple, one and indivisible, another tells of seven, another describes twenty-three, while yet another asks us to believe that in Great Britain there are six-and-thirty distinct types”. How amazed he would be to find that botanists now recognise nearly 400 different microspecies!
The bramble has sometimes been said to have been the burning bush seen by Moses, or to have formed the crown of thorns. It has been valued in the past as a medicinal plant. The Greeks used blackberries to treat gout, and both the fruit and flowers were considered effective against the bites of serpents. It was also used to soothe scalds and burns, and to fix loose teeth.
The bramble is shade tolerant, but heavy shade severely limits the production of flowers and fruit. So for productive blackberrying, look out for bushes in sunlit hedgerows, on the margins of woods or beneath gaps in the woodland tree canopy.
But make haste, and make the most of September’s crop, for after Old Michaelmas Day on 10 October they become inedible. The reason, according to country folk, is that on Old Michaelmas Day the devil fell from heaven into a bramble patch. So angry was he that, every year on the anniversary of his fall, he spits on the fruit and renders them inedible. The more down to earth explanation is probably that early frosts damage the fruits and render them vulnerable to mildew.