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The blessed bramble

The Blessed Bramble

Is it time to take a more forgiving look at a prickly old enemy?

There’s a beautiful piece of embroidery on show at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Silk threads and silver beads depict climbing plants, sewn on to a leather falconry glove. It was made around 1600 for James VI, probably by the King’s Embroiderer, William Borthwick. The detail is astonishing. Long stems of bramble climb up towards the familiar paired leaves of mistletoe. But while the latter is a dull green, the bramble is the star. Every thorn is picked out, every drupelet of each blackberry shines. Its white flowers, petals edged in silver, are shown along with the fruit. The caption explains that in Scotland, the blackberry plant is known as the ‘blessed bramble’ due to its healing properties.

This is intriguing. Blackberries are delicious, but do they possess medicinal powers that we have now forgotten? And how strange to find out that this prickly, persistent plant is ‘blessed.’

The bramble was certainly revered in past centuries. While nowadays for most of us the juicy fruit is simply a tasty bonus on a late summer walk, in the past its leaves were made into an infusion to treat ailments as diverse as snake bites, burns and dysentery, according to artist Fee Cuimeanach who runs Wee White Hoose, a website dedicated to Scotland’s traditions. It was even said that a salad made from the astringent young shoots would help to fasten loose teeth.

We may not like the bramble’s clever but annoying habit of curving its stems over and sending out its suckering roots wherever it lands, but at one time this distinctive shape offered a portal to various cures: rheumatism, boils, and acne could apparently be healed by crawling under its arch. Baby suffering from pertussis? Then pass it through seven times and the illness will be transferred to the plant.

Today, modern foragers are making full use of the bramble as nutrition. Stirlingshire-based herbalist Lauren Lochrie recommends picking the vitamin-packed leaf buds in spring, either to eat fresh off the plant or as a tea: “They have a uniquely nutty and almost citrus-like flavour.” Chewed up, they can be applied to the skin to help close small cuts.

Brambles have been used as talismans. Planted near front doors, they were said to ward off vampires, who will be distracted by counting the sanguinous fruit. Long stems were hung above byres to protect cattle. And if you want to stop the dead from wandering, plant a bramble on their graves.

People brought up in the countryside may remember the warning not to eat brambles after the end of September because ‘the devil has spat on them.’ This makes some sense, as the fruit has by this stage begun to break down and doesn’t taste as good. The legend goes that Lucifer was flung out of heaven by the archangel St Michael on the day subsequently celebrated as Michaelmas, 29 September. The outcast landed in a patch of brambles, and in his anger he cursed and spat on them. Scotland has its own version concerning a mischievous sprite or bogle, who peed on the brambles having been caught and punished by a laird for stealing. Just remember if you enjoy eating the berries, don’t pick the very first fruits, either: those are for the fairies.

But why the blessed bramble? The first part of the name may come from a well-known bible story. The variety Rubus ulmifolius subsp. sanctus or holy bramble, is believed to be the burning bush that survived being consumed by flames and features in the Torah and the Old Testament bible story about Moses. A specimen still grows at the Chapel of the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai – a testimony to this most tenacious of plants.

There may be another reason that the bramble was the appropriate plant to embroider on the King’s hunting gauntlet. The spiky bushes can harbour the hawk’s prey such as rabbits and smaller game birds that would be flushed out by dogs.

The bramble offers many species a safe haven. In hedges and bushes it provides excellent shelter, protection, and nesting sites for birds such as wrens, dunnocks, long-tailed tits and blackbirds. Its fruit becomes a handy food source for them as well as for migrating birds such as redwings. All are happy to eat the berries long after the end of September. Dormice, foxes, and badgers will snaffle up fallen blackberries and even delicately pick them off the stems.

The bramble is valued right down the food chain. In spring, bees, wasps, butterflies and flies visit the flowers for nectar. Some nest in the stems and reproduce on the leaves. Moths use bramble as a food source for larvae and will overwinter in the leaf litter. Wildlife expert Mark Cocker has written that ‘bramble is probably the most important source of pollen, nectar and then ripe-fruit sugars for more species of insect than any other common British plant.’

So although it may entangle and prick us, and send out long shoots through garden shrubs at an alarming rate, let’s celebrate the blessed bramble.

Lauren Lochrie’s bramble-bud tea:

  • Simply add around six fresh leaf buds or young leaves to a cup of hot water five minutes off the boil. As a general health tonic, it will give you a much-needed boost after a cold sluggish winter!
  • A bramble leaf bud syrup can be incorporated through cocktails, cordials, and baked desserts.  

Bramble whisky recipe

An ideal winter warmer, and a tasty addition to ice creams and desserts

1 – put dry blackberries into a Kilner jar, filling to about two-thirds.

2 – pour in sugar until it is halfway up the fruit

3 – add whisky to fill the jar

4 – shake gently, leave in a dark place for at least three weeks

5 – strain the berries through a muslin cloth – or keep them in the drink for a burst of fruit.

art, Burrell, embroidery, Scotland

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