The couple ahead of me on the road seem to be acting very suspiciously. Heads were turning around for a furtive look followed by a quick discussion.
I was on a beautiful rural road lined with mature hedgerows. Was this a secret liaison with two lovers meeting on a quite lane? After a few minuets I caught up them and a brief exchange of pleasantries took place. As I walked on I noticed that they had plastic bags tucked under their arms and the mystery was suddenly solved. Unfortunately dear reader the answer is rather mundane and I don’t think that even Mills and Boon could make a good story out of Blackberry picking.
At this time of year the Brambles that climb through the hedgerows are full of Blackberries. Good locations are jealously guarded and passed down through the family like a wildlife heirloom. They have many culinary uses including jam making, baked in tarts or my favourite eaten with plain vanilla ice cream. I am not sure if they can be made into wine but it would probably be sickly sweet. The best time to pick them is after a sharp frost as this makes the juices less bitter. Try and avoid busy roads as the berries will become covered in dirt and fumes from the passing cars. There is only a short window to gather Blackberries as they quickly turn mushy or become invested with little worms. Traditionally it was believed that witches on there way to the great pagan feast of Halloween touched the Blackberries and they started to decay. They are over 200 different sub species of Bramble found in Ireland and many are only identifiable at the genetic level.
This plant is a magnet for wildlife. Its flowers are white and quite plain but they attract many species of insects and provide them with plenty of nectar. They in turn pollinate the flowers ensuring that we get a good crop of blackberries. During late Summer I was standing by a long patch of brambles. Dozens of hoverflies were busily feeding and this was mingled with the sound of the bumblebees. Overhead Swallows were swooping and diving and taking full advantage of this rare insect bounty. Also the Ringlet butterfly that is found in long grassy areas is usually found feeding on the flowers of the bramble and inside the dense tangle of thorns birds like the Wren find a safe location to build their nest. A study done of the diet of foxes during early autumn found that over 70% of their diet consisted of fruit and berries including blackberries. This gives it normally black scant a distinctive purplish tinge.
The Bramble is superbly adapted for life of climbing. If you every look closely at a bramble you will see that the thorns are pointing backwards. This allows the plant to scramble to the top of hedgerows and makes it virtually impossible to pull out as the turns lock onto to branches. If you every need to remove brambles from a shrub try cutting it at the base and pulling from the top.
It can grow up to a few meters in a year allowing it to colonize new ground very quickly. When the stem touches the ground, roots are quickly sent down and a new plant starts to grow.
Sometimes this forms an Bramble arch and this was considered to have powerful medicinal uses. Later on as I returned to the car I see the same couple filling up there bags with blackberries. A moment of mischief takes hold and I casually saunter up and start to pick and eat “their Blackberries”. They immediately stop what they are doing and give me filthy looks. I decide to beat a hasty retreat and conclude that Blackberry picking can be a dangerous business and in future I will stick to safer pastimes. The wild fruits of hedgerows are a free seasonal bounty. Why not go out a try some with the kids. Happy hunting.