Thorny Issues

I don’t know about you but brambles seem to be the bane of my life. Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration but living, as I do, on the side of a hill, I am surrounded by them and each time I walk past they seem to make a grab for whatever I’m wearing. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has called them many names other than blackberry, briar or their Latin name, Rubus fruticosus

Blackberries
Image sourced from WikiCommons ©Fir0002

There are said to be over 300 microspecies within the UK alone and this abundant, tenacious plant grows at an alarming speed. It seems that no sooner have I cleared a path of these spiky tendrils than they grow again. This can be more than just annoying as I’ve often been tripped up or had the thorns rake across my shins. But no matter how much I dislike them, brambles do have many redeeming qualities, and not just the crop of blackberries we enjoy each autumn.

The tangled mass of thorn-covered stems can cover large areas, and within these many birds and animals find sanctuary. Low down, rodents and small birds find protection from those higher up the food chain as, like us, foxes and other predators find it hard and painful to negotiate these seemingly impenetrable refuges. Many birds nest within these areas and insects too find shelter and protection in established areas of brambles. The flowers provide pollen while the leaves can provide both shelter and, eventually, leaf litter.

In the autumn, the humble bramble redeems itself somewhat by producing juicy blackberries, and it’s not just us humans that love the fruit. Birds especially make good use of this abundance of food – something that is essential to the bramble as it’s via the birds that the seeds are distributed. Once the seeds have been spread, the new plant will grow almost everywhere making it a common sight in just about any habitat, from abandoned urban areas to railway embankments through to hillsides and just about any other location you care to mention. No doubt you will see them in abundance during your next walk.

Over the years, the bramble has not only provided us with fruit to eat in crumbles and pies, but also fruit that can be turned into wine, jam, jellies and even ale (when mixed with malt and hops). Blackberries are high in vitamin C and its leaves have been used in herbal teas with, it is thought, detoxifying qualities. Dyes have been made from the fruit and string can even be made from the fibres of the stems (assuming you are brave enough to tackle such a thorny challenge). 

So, having done my research into a plant that seems to enjoy ripping my clothes, tripping me up and leaving painful scratches over any unprotected part of me, perhaps I should be a little more tolerant. When you consider the benefits to both ourselves and the wildlife, perhaps I can forgive the occasional run-in…

Journalist and photographer Phil Pickin is fascinated by wildlife and our natural environment. He tweets via @philpickin

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