Friday, 29 August 2014

It's That bramble time of year again

Today I picked some brambles from the hedgerows. I love finding free, natural foods and producing things for use in the home and for eating. They are not as large as last years berries, but I will still be making some jam with them. Last year I managed to find a lot of Brambles and we had plenty of jam and fruit for pies and pudding. Last year's Bramble blog covered making jam and freezing fruit for pies and puddings. See last years Bramble blog here.

Still plenty more fruit to come
This year I thought I'd look at other uses of brambles, Rubus fruticosa, particularly in Scotland. This sprawling, very jaggy, vicious plant grows in hedgerows, waste ground and through shrubs and trees if its gets a chance. It forms an often impenetrable barrier by rooting when a piece of a branch touches the ground. It then sends up a whole new set of canes and a new plant is formed and so it goes on. It will also spread by seed, generously and unwittingly helped by birds and small mammals that eat the fruit.

From the time when man became a hunter gatherer and then a farmer many plants have had uses in the home, as medicine and as a food. We know Brambles best as a food. Their sweet and tart, vitamin-laden berries flavouring puddings and as a base for jams and jellies. Frozen they give us a taste of late summer right through winter. My favourite pudding with them is a plain and simple apple pie with brambles added. Put in some extra sugar if you think the flavour will be too tart. Serve with custard or cream. I'm feeling hungry already and I've just eaten dinner!

In Scotland the humble Bramble is said to have powers to ward off evil and offer protection from witch craft. This was done by weaving it with Ivy and Rowan and placing it above the lintel of the house. The peeled branches of the Bramble were sometimes used to represent St Bride at spring festivals in the Highlands and Islands. It is also thought unlucky to pick the berries after St Michaelmas day as it was thought the devil has spat on or possessed the berries after that day.

There is an old story told of a Cormorant, a Bat and a Bramble who entered into a partnership to be merchants of wool. They loaded a large ship with wool on loan and set sail. The ship was wrecked and sank to the bottom of the sea and the enterprise went bankrupt. This is why the Cormorant is always diving into the sea to search for the sunken ship, the Bat flies about at midnight to avoid the creditors and the Bramble takes hold of passing sheep to gain back the wool lost at sea!

The Bramble has many names, many of them not very polite when it snares you as you walk past or try to get through it to pick berries. It is also known as bumblekites, bounty thorn, skaldberry, blackbutters, blackbides, gatterberry. In Gaelic it is the prickle thorn - dris-muine.

Medicinally the leaves were used for burns and swellings and for sore throats and rotting gums. The leaves could either be chewed or made into a tea. Fife mining families used an infusion of leaves to treat diarrhoea. Culpeper advises us to use a liquid strained from the boiled buds, leaves and wee bits of the wood for treating 'putrid sores in the mouth and throat'. We now know the high concentration of tannins gives this plant its astringency. Nowadays Brambles are also classed as a super food because of their antioxidant values and high vitamin content.

A recipe for Fresh Blackberry Leaf Tea
1 handful fresh green blackberry leaves.
1½ mugs water
Makes one mug. Simmer the green leaves (and bark if used) in the water for about 10 minutes
(do not boil as this may reduce the vitamin content). Strain into cups and add honey.
Use this hot, as a refreshing vitamin and antioxidant filled tea, or cold as a gargle for sore throats or as an astringent mouthwash.

Other uses for this versatile plant include wine, cordial and puddings mad from the berries which can also be used to produce varied colours of dye. Depending on the ripeness and strength of the berry juice they produce dyes of rose pink, red, orange, purple and grey blue. Traditionally bramble wood was used to make pipes.

From time out of mind people have spent time harvesting brambles. Family afternoons out picking the berries to take home to make into jams and jellies. Sticky purple fingers and a few or more eaten along the way. Scratches and thorns the price for a winter supply of conserves and puddings. I am sure this tradition will go on for a long time yet.


Tess Darwin, The Scots Herbal, 1996
Richard Mabey, Food for Free, 2007

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