Woodland in May

Grassy area of woodland, with an encouraging number of tree seedlings.

The woodland has been transformed this month by the growth of understory plants, and leaves on the trees.

We have tried to improve the footpath in places, removing brambles along the edge before the weather got too hot to wear protective clothing, and removing some blackthorn so it could return to its original line in one section rather than along the drainage ditch! Numbers of walkers have massively increased, as might be expected, luckily it dried out just in time to cope with this many feet. There is a lot more to do along here, but probably in little bits now until the autumn.

I have been pleased and relieved to see that where I have removed brambles, they have mostly stayed removed. Just the odd shoot I missed or that broke off to deal with. There is a small patch of woodland not far from us where I noticed a dramatic reduction in brambles earlier this year, and some new trees being planted, all well protected. Two months on, the brambles are as dense with new sprouts as the untouched areas of our woodland – I can only assume they were strimmed to ground level and have now all grown back!

I have also been going along sycamore stumps removing fresh shoots emerging from the bases. Not all stumps have shoots, but we always knew some may need more serious treatment. They are getting hard to see in the lush undergrowth of hogweed and herb bennet in that area.

The hazels and yews I planted are doing well, glad they were not quite minimum size or they would be covered! They have got through the last bit of winter wet anyway, now I have to hope they can cope with drought!

We have found a few large white and brown feathers that are probably from a buzzard. I have had reports from walkers (and can see the evidence) that they use our logpile as a perch.

Brambling

Brambling seems to me a bit like rambling, a roundabout way of walking that may or may not arrive anywhere in particular. The word commonly refers to picking the fruits, blackberries, so to be accurate maybe I should call what I have been doing de-brambling – but somehow that conjures up a picture of being organised about its removal, starting on one side and moving across an area, cutting it out as I go, which is a very long way from the reality.

Imagine if you will an area covered by a thin layer of brambles, mostly at ground level but occasionally sending a shoot around or over low branches of trees. Tug on it gently, autumn leaves fall off the stem and an end becomes apparent. No good just pulling, the roots need removing or cutting else it will re-sprout in Spring. Holding it with a gloved hand, I pull it gently and stab down with a deep-rooter. It comes free. Then I walk to the other end, which could easily be 12-16 feet away. This end is older, and has a semi-rotten stalk from the previous year, plus maybe a second shoot from this year. Gather them up in a hand, stab down again. Now follow the end of the other shoot… I work my way around the edge of a patch of brambles, weaving in and out of trees, often some distance away from the pile I am creating, and then back again. Occasionally I manage to do several roots close together, but the way they grow means there is always another end over the top that needs sorting before it gets pulled and snapped off. The good part is that by constantly walking in circles I don’t get a stiff back!

There are around 3-400 microspecies of bramble in the UK; many subtly different brambles are all closely related, even the thornless garden ones, so it is generally written as Rubus fruticosa L. agg. (for aggregate.) Even their fruits, which can set without being pollinated by another plant (though thankfully they then produce sterile seeds or the numbers would totally overwhelm me!) are botanically known as an aggregate of drupelets.

I have noticed differences between various patches of brambles in our woodland. Most brambles will send out new shoots each year, the number depending on age and size of rootstock, and where they touch the soil they will send roots into the ground in a forwards direction, continuing its direction of growth and possibly pulling it down. However, a few will fork to have two or three tips from each shoot root, with the roots being generally fewer for each. However, I have found a totally different type that go vertically downwards and then corkscrew to pull themselves inwards, thickening at the base – these are very fragile just above the base and liable to snap even when pulled very gently, so are much the trickiest to get out. However, they have gentler, or should I say larger, individually visible, thorns compared to most. Multiple small thorns seems to be the norm here, a few are almost furry along the stems with just the occasional sharp point, while one or two have such battle armour it is like being covered in shards of glass. The slightest touch gives multiple scratches.

This is actually the origin of the name Bramble – from the German bræmaz meaning prickly. One flew up and swiped my cheek and nose the other day. I rubbed my nose about half an hour later and discovered it still had a thorn in it. Gloves usually have broken off bits of thorn, which work their way in. Splinters frequently hurt only a little at the time, but get worse over the next day or so when they cry out to be removed. I have learned to wear stout gloves on both hands, however hard that makes it to hold a tool, so it is just my wrists and face in danger.

I see how growing conditions change the character as well as the genetics. In one area next to some blackthorn all the stems grow vertically, most of them only about two feet high. I thought they would be easy to remove, but each had a rootstock akin to a rose, thick, tough and deep. I just removed the stems that were in the way of tree-felling and left them to grow back. I want to leave the blackthorn for wildlife anyway, and certainly don’t want to take all the brambles out! A soggy place had a thin covering of live stems, very little in the way of old stems remaining, but I traced 6 or 7 green stems all growing in different directions to one rootstock near the foot of an oak tree. A giant, tentacled, prickly monster. Only in dry areas are there many older stems still remaining, mostly they rot down within a year. In my view, brambles that have made thickets that flower and fruit and provide nesting or hiding spaces are worth leaving for wildlife, whereas thin coverings without any large animals to browse on them are just trip hazards.

Another interesting thing I have noticed is that shoots never root within six inches of another; if two shoots look that close, they are almost certainly joined together just out of sight. I did just once see a new shoot that had landed closer than this, I don’t know what would have happened had I left it, but there seems to be an optimum minimum distance for rootstocks of around 8-9 inches.

I have the impression that the brambles have been growing as protection for the trees. It is a sad fact that of the National Plant Monitoring Scheme’s first collected results, brambles are the most common plant seen in woodland generally, indicating either under-management or over-nitrogenation or both, and shading out many other wildflowers such as dog violets and marsh marigolds which are in serious decline. I admire them greatly, hence this post honouring them, but now it is time for other things. The land has been unloved for so long that people were not welcome and the brambles (and nettles… I’ll find out how many of them there are in a few more weeks!) have been very effective at keeping the people out. It took me a while to gain the trees’ trust; it took us over a year to actually buy the woodland during which time I was asking the trees if they were happy for me to be their guardian, and surrounding them with love. I realise now how I couldn’t be doing the work I am if I hadn’t already got to know the woodland a little bit through a whole cycle. So I thank each bramble for growing and giving its protection to the land, and just give love to the trees around which it is growing so that they may not need such strong protection in future. Go in peace.

Brambles

Blackberry flowers and fruits

Blackberry flowers and fruits


For the past three weeks M and I have enjoyed picking blackberries on our walks. Apart from just eating them, we have made several pots of bramble jelly, some blackberry ice cream, had blackberry and apple crumble, stewed blackberries for breakfast, and even frozen some. Blackberry cheesecake is a personal favourite that might come soon… It is one of those flavours that you can never quite remember properly, but a good juicy berry is always better than you expect. Or a bad one more pippy and worse.

Brambles love the British climate, growing anywhere they are allowed and rooting themselves wherever they touch the ground. Around here it is in the hedgerows that I find them, often picking a few here and there as I walk. Most branches will have a few ripe ones, but the plants have evolved to fruit over a long period to encourage maximum spread of the seeds so it is rare to find many ripe ones together. M has taught me to notice them even when I haven’t brought a pot to put some in; the odd one or two keep her going on a walk and she can now spot a bramble bush before I can. Even 30 yards away, the other side of a road. Picking half a pound along a mile of hedge is quite easy; if I’m after more than that it takes effort, knowing where to go, and frequently full combat gear! They are the most predatory plant I know, using their thorns to hook onto whatever they find – hawthorn, fences, their own branches. (Take a look at Bramble Scramble from the BBC’s Private Life of Plants if you don’t believe me!) Luckily there are thornless types now available for those who wish to cultivate them, but they are generally not half as satisfying as picking wild berries.

Bramble hedgerow

Bramble hedgerow


In some areas of Europe there is a taboo against eating blackberries – either because they belong to the fae, or because they represent death. The former is an interesting one, given blackberry wine is apparently okay! This is not a question I have had the opportunity to ask directly, but I believe the point here is about balance, respect, understanding, and above all sharing, especially if you make wine… And remembering that the bramble bushes feed and shelter many animals and birds as well. Cutting them all back, especially when they are about to fruit, would not be appreciated. Others suggest that eating blackberries or drinking blackberry wine at the Equinox is a good way to contact the fae. This is the time when the energies start to withdraw, spiralling down into the earth, and in some legends the Lord of the Harvest enters the Underworld, through the hollow hills, into the care of the fae. Black will take you down into the dark, finding the way through the tunnels of the Earth, while the sweetness will bring pleasure and enjoyment and lightness of heart, helping us to remember life is to be lived.

As for death, well being a pagan is all about the cycles of nature and death being a necessary part of life. The old must be cleared away to make space for what is to come, and Spirit is eternal. Death is not to be feared, but to be embraced, worked with, even thanked at times, for it is the only way we may pass out of this life and into the next part of our spiritual journey when it is time to leave.

There are also many superstitions against eating blackberries after a certain date, usually Michaelmas day (11th October) but sometimes Autumn equinox, or October 1st. The reasons given vary with the date, but in my experience it is a rare year that the late blackberries have been properly pollinated and ripen to full sweetness; the August berries always taste the best.

Planted on graves, brambles were supposed to stop the dead from wandering. Children or cows can be passed through a bramble arch rooted at both ends to bring health, for the blackberry has the gift of abundance as well as protection. Whooping cough was a favourite to be cured in this way, leaving an offering afterwards of bread and butter for the fairies of course.