Bramble: friend or foe?

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Blackberries change colour from red to black as they ripen. Image by Thomas’ pics (CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)

In England at this time of year, the hedgerows along country lanes are full of delicious fruits called blackberries. Just last week I spent an enjoyable afternoon with friends gorging on blackberries along the route of an old railway line in Norwich (now a footpath and cycleway). The berries are a good source of vitamin C and antioxidants, and are commonly used in desserts and preserves. Although I love collecting and eating blackberries, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the plant that produces them, the bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.).

Rubus fruticosus agg. isn’t a single species, but instead is a group (or aggregate; agg) of around 200-300 very similar species of shrub in the rose family that are very hard to tell apart (1). Like roses, brambles are covered in sharp thorns that help to protect the plant from herbivores (and humans). The thorns also help to make brambles a safe haven for many small birds and other wildlife.

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Brambles are pollinated by insects. Image by Roger Bunting (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr)

Brambles grow wild across most of Europe and in the UK they can thrive in most environments (1). The white or pinkish flowers are self-fertile and can still produce seeds even in the absence of fertilization (a process called apomixis) to produce an army of clone plants (2). Furthermore, brambles can produce suckers – new shoots from buds in the roots – which helps them rapidly cover an area of ground. As a result, brambles are often among the first plants to colonise abandoned plots of land. This is great for wildlife and the casual blackberry picker, but it’s not so helpful if you are trying to work on said piece of abandoned land…

When some friends and I took on an allotment this year, our plot had been neglected for a while and contained quite a lot of brambles. We removed a lot of the plants but have left some to be our own personal blackberry patch. Removing brambles is not a fun business as the thorns can cut through clothes (and gardening gloves). For several weeks in the spring my arms and legs were covered in scratches and I often found bramble thorns impaled in my fingers. If you don’t manage to completely remove the whole root, the bramble is quite capable of growing a fresh shoot so we’ve had a few cheeky brambles reappearing in the vegetable beds.

Despite my moaning about brambles I must say that the blackberry crop from the allotment has been great. It is kind of ironic that our most successful crop this year is something we weren’t deliberately growing. All in all, if I had to summarize my relationship with the bramble at the moment, I would say: “it’s complicated”.

 

References:

1) Wikipedia: Blackberry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackberry

2) Brambles (Rubus fruticosus) http://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/brambles-rubus-fructicosus

Image links:

Bramble by Thomas’ pics

Canal: Morse to town 7 June ’11 by Roger Bunting

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8 thoughts on “Bramble: friend or foe?

  1. Hi Sarah,
    We have a bedlam of brambles growing along a wall outside of our garden. Even though it’s on public land I’m the only person who harvests them, so I’m currently stuffing my freezer with boxes of berries that will enable me to bake my family’s favorite pie year round. I’m also feeling the hundreds of tiny scratches up and down my arms, torso, legs and head. So like you I have a complicated relationship with brambles; I love them, I can’t leave them alone, but I also really want the season to come to an end!
    -Mary

    • Hi Mary, thats a very handy blackberry patch! I’m filling my freezer too and remind myself that it will all be worth it in the winter when I make a tasty dessert from the frozen blackberries 🙂

  2. As someone who runs their orchard and veggie plot more as a nature reserve than a productive garden I sympathise. I own my plot so no worries about the allotment committee threatening to take it back if there are too many weeds (although my neighbour did complain about the number of thistles I let seed). Any produce I harvest is a bonus, the main aim is to provide habitat for wildlife.

    My blackberries are producing madly, even in the dry weather we’ve been having. I’ve allowed them to infiltrate the hedge but otherwise they generally get mown off (unless they taste particularly good). It is interesting how different one plant can be from another. The blackberries in the hedge get trimmed every couple of years. So far it’s working OK.

    For thorn protection I recommend Goldleaf gloves. They are made of deerskin and by far the most comfortable and toughest gardening gloves I have tried. I’ve used them for years.

    • Hi Susan, thanks for the glove recommendation – I shall look out for a pair. Sounds like you have a good thing going there with your orchard and veggie plot. We’ve left the brambles on the edge to make a bit of a hedge to encourage wildlife but as you say we need to be careful that we are seen to be properly cultivating our plot.

  3. I too have a love hate relationship with brambles. I was involved with eliminating more than an acre of them In Worsbrough St Mary’s cemetery garden twenty years ago!
    I grow a thornless large fruiting cultivar in my own garden for blackberries. Much easier and quicker to pick than ordinary brambles
    It always fascinates me when I find the most successful plants to be hybrids!
    Apparently a long time ago brambles were planted on graves to keep the devil away. Probably a tall story!

  4. At our house when I was growing up in Alaska, we had a bramble patch (of raspberries). As far as I know, we never did any maintenance of it other than keeping it confined to it’s one area of the yard. But we had tons of raspberries each year (my Mom was the big berry harvester….my siblings and I just snacked on them when we were outside doing yard things). But yes, I have had my share of scratches from them too. I’ve since traded bramble scratches for cat scratches all over my arms.

  5. I have absolutely loads of brambles on my newly acquired allotment. I’ve cleared a lot but am planning to let some spring back next year and pick the berries. I usually go foraging for them to make apple and blackberry jam with so it seems silly to completely get rid of them on my plot. I’ve had quite a few bramble-clearing injuries though.

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