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.

Tree Stories 8 – Blackthorn

Blackthorn is now published on its own page; please use the link above.

Ripening Sloes

Ripening Sloes

There are many blackthorn bushes mixed into the hawthorn hedges around where I live, and some years I have picked the sloes for gin or syrup. They are best after the first frosts. Both can just be enjoyed as a drink, but are also good for coughs and sore throats. Blackthorn flowers and leaves can be helpful for depression, as well as a good general tonic. Birds also enjoy the berries. The flowers are a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees, while several butterfly and moth caterpillars enjoy the leaves.

The wood is particularly hard and dense, being traditionally used for cudgels, blasting sticks and Irish shillelaghs, as well as tool handles and walking sticks. It is very much associated with witches, with the thorns being considered ideal for spellwork such as piercing a wax poppet, although in past times it was the witch hunters who used it; blackthorn seems to be the tree most likely to be used by someone wishing to harm others. The Ogham name for blackthorn, Straif, strife in modern English, is a good descriptor for it. A hard tree to love, it nevertheless does a useful job of keeping cattle in the fields, and in some versions, keeping princes out of Sleeping Beauty’s castle becoming impenetrable to all except true love. Similarly Rapunzel, where the prince looses his eyes on blackthorn bushes, to have it restored by his true love’s tears. Those who hold onto their pain and anger rarely have an easy time with blackthorn and are likely to get scratched by thorns with a reputation for turning cuts septic.

More positive interpretations and uses of Blackthorn vary widely. Some use it for facing death, and it is usually associated with the dark Goddess, Morrigan or Cailleach. Others for piercing negative attitudes in themselves or others, and befriending it can bring understanding of what causes negativity in your life. Yet more use it for protection, either psychically or physically, or as a wand for a banishing spell. My own interpretation, for strength in times of adversity, covers most of these at a deep level.

The Blackthorn was traditionally followed by its sister tree Hawthorn when used for healing – gentling and bringing love where blackthorn has pricked the hidden sores.

Clearing the old

It is a fact of nature that some things have to die in order to make way for new growth. As a pagan I generally feel well connected to the cycles of the land, and when the time is right, can even enjoy being destructive as part of clearing the way for something positive to follow. So I have begun the work of transforming my garden in accordance with the plans I made earlier this year.

The first big job turns out to be the removal of a pyracanthus ‘hedge’. It was planted by the previous occupants so is probably 20-25 years old. Being evergreen, it hides the grey breeze block wall at the end of the garden from view all year round, and so is appreciated by the rest of the family from that point of view. As a pagan I should appreciate it for its white flowers and fiery berries, and the thorns which can cut to the root of a problem. However as a gardener, I have found it hard to love. The ground is too dry or too lacking in nutrients for it to flower, so after setting buds it turns brown and fails to make berries. (The raspberry bushes I planted immediately alongside have fruited well for 15 years, so I suspect the problem is the plant, or the original soil preparation. No amount of pruning to remove the dead bits has helped…) Being summer the rest of the family doesn’t notice its brown-ness, as there are plenty of other plants nearby to divert the eye, but to me it becomes an eyesore. In addition its thorns will go through any glove, and are frequently found some distance from the hedge after its annual prune, where I may not even have the benefit of hand protection. In short it is not a plant I have come to love, and part of the redesign gave me pleasure in finding an excuse to get rid of it and put in something I do like. Viburnum tinus, or cotoneaster, or box or hebe, or just about anything evergreen and non-prickly!

The hedge is fighting back. I am covered in scratches and bruises, and have thorns stuck in my fingertips and elsewhere that have to be dug out. There are substantial thorns on every stem or trunk, no matter how old or thick they have become, right down to ground level. Not wanting to risk trying to shred such an awkward plant with its twisted branches, they have to be cut up small enough to go in the bin, over a series of weeks as it is only collected fortnightly.

But then I looked at it a different way. This plant has protected our garden from intruders, and cows, for a long time. It may not have always looked pretty, but it succeeded in the job it was asked to do. Therefore in order to remove it without major difficulty, I have found it helpful to thank it for its efforts. It is so easy to forget to properly acknowledge what was!

And the results? With even a small part of it now gone, I am finding some rewards. M has discovered she can now hide around the corner from the raspberry bushes and pinch the fruit from the back, and even more importantly, she can see the cows or horses or donkeys in the field behind without me having to lift her up. Maybe I shouldn’t plant right up to the wall!