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.

A Woodland Spring

There is a very lovely woodland spring near to me, which I had the opportunity to revisit this week. It is shown on maps as “Ben’s Well”, near to “Ben’s Farm”, and lies within “Booth’s Wood”. I have not as yet been able to find out anything about who Ben was – do comment below if you can enlighten me!

Ben's Well as it emerges from the ground.

Ben’s Well as it emerges from the ground with the root bridge in the foreground.
(Click to enlarge.)

The spring is one of several nearby, but the only one that never seems to be muddy. It comes straight out of the muddy bank and flows beautifully pure and clear, making nice drinking. I was reminded on tasting it of some of Victor Schauberger’s work on streams following their natural course through woodland, running all year and never flooding or jamming up if they are not interfered with by man. The temperature stays far more constant with the tree’s shading, and it is very pleasant there even on a hot day.

Root bridge at Ben's Well.

Root bridge at Ben’s Well. (Click to enlarge)

There is, however, an extra feature that attracts me to this stream. Within a few feet of the spring is a path, which at one time had a stone wall built along each side of it. This can be seen higher up in the wood, with the occasional stone gatepost still standing. However where it crosses the stream, the main evidence of the wall is where a tree root has used it to advantage to make a natural bridge. This root has become the crossing point itself. A special place.

Root Bridge and Wood Sorrel

Root Bridge at Ben’s Well, Derbyshire. Wood Sorrel grows on the upstream side.

Bottle Gardening

Trying to grow vegetables on a windswept Derbyshire hillside always feels a bit hit and miss – most plants do very well once they establish themselves and get growing as the soil is good and rich and is rarely too dry – but vegetables being mainly annuals can be somewhat tricky to get to this stage. Setbacks in their growth tend to have rather negative consequences on their cropping!

I have tried waiting to plant things later, but sometimes the growing season then feels too short. Or else I miss the ‘window’ for planting and they never get in the ground. I also have trouble sowing seed indoors due to lack of windowsills and lack of light – I grow lots of things from seed each year, but slower growing flowers or seeds sown in late April or May do better than compact, fast growing, leafy plants sown in winter. So this year I am trying a new, more determined approach: buy in some healthy looking, British grown, brassica plants and lettuces that are at the right stage for planting out, and then give them as much protection as I can. My bottle collection, built up over a few years and normally reserved for sweetcorn, has come out of store early.

Bottle Garden

Bottle Garden

Of course, a windy day immediately followed planting and several bottles flew off. I tried simply putting them back – which lasted all of a few minutes until the wind picked up again. My solution was to make use of my sticky, heavy clay soil – water everything, pile soil around each bottle, water again and effectively ‘glue’ the bottles into place. It has worked before, and I hope will this time! For those wishing to copy this method, water well before attempting to remove the bottles as the first time I tried this a plant came out with the bottle, but minus its roots…