The blessed bramble
There’s a beautiful piece of embroidery on show at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Silk threads and silver beads combine to create climbing plants on a leather falconry glove. It was made around 1600 for James VI, probably by the King’s Embroiderer, William Borthwick. The detail is astonishing. The long stems of the bramble climb up towards the familiar paired leaves of the mistletoe. But while the latter is in a dull green, the bramble is the star. Every thorn is picked out, every drupelet of each blackberry shines. Its white flowers are shown as well as the fruit. The caption explains that in Scotland blackberries are known as the ‘blessed bramble’ due to their 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, tenacious and fierce plant is ‘blessed’.
It was certainly revered in past centuries, according to Wee White Hoose, a website dedicated to Scotland’s traditions. While now we simply like the juicy fruit as a treat when walking in early autumn or for adding colour to a crumble, the site tells us that in the past its leaves were made into an infusion to treat ailments as diverse as snake bites, burns and dysentery. A salad made from its astringent young shoots would help to fasten loose teeth, as noted in 1892 by Richard Folkard in his book Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics.
Bramble’s clever but annoying habit of curving its stems over and sending out new roots wherever it lands was also a benefit we no longer know about: rheumatism, boils, acne and whooping cough can be cured by crawling under such an arch, apparently.
Along with ivy and rowan, bramble stems were hung above the entrances to byres to protect cattle. This custom, along with many others, has died out. But 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, 29th September. The outcast landed in a patch of brambles, and in his anger he cursed and spat on them. In Scotland, there is a different story concerning a mischievous sprite or bogle, who peed on the brambles having been caught and punished by a laird for stealing.
The blessed part of the name may come from another source. 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.
Another reason the bramble might have been the appropriate plant to embroider on the King’s glove is that the spiky bushes would harbour the hawk’s prey such as rabbits and smaller game birds.
Today the ubiquitous hedgerow and roadside plants continue to provide excellent shelter, protection and nesting sites to birds such as wrens, dunnocks, long-tailed tits and blackbirds. Its fruit becomes a handy food source for native as well as migrating birds such as redwings, who are happy to eat the berries long after the end of September. Brambles’ usefulness goes further down the food chain. Wildlife expert Mark Cocker writes 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.