Originally published April 2012
Hello everyone! Following last month’s ramble on the arborial casualties of the snowfall, my notoriously ecclectic train of thought has me contemplating the species Rubus fruticosus; known to most people as Blackberry! Why, I hear you cry, am I thinking of late Summer bounties in March? Have the idiosyncrasies of our weather system led to a significant abberation in my temporal orientation? Have I, in short, lost the ecological plot?
Well Dear Reader, I can reassure you on that point. My thoughts on Rubus sp. are not so much concerned with the delicious wild harvest we all enjoy in September, but rather the method of defence the plant adopts. Having spent a few days clearing footpaths of fallen trees and branches, followed by a period of nursing scratches and puncture wounds to various parts of my anatomy, I have built up a healthy respect for all things spiky and thorny. It was not only Blackberry that seemed intent on shredding clothes and skin alike; Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Wild Rose and Holly all demonstrated their ability to deter potential foes. However it was only the Bramble that clung on to me with Triffid-like tenacity as I endevoured to ensnare myself in the mass of thorny branches. Whilst I warily disentangled myself I got to wondering why this should be!
Every gardener is aware of the tenacious nature of the ubiquitous Bramble; one of those plants that never seems to disappear no matter how many hours are spent digging and hoeing. It is of no great surprise that Blackberry is a member of the Rose family Rosaceae. The common name Bramble may well have come from the Germanic name for the plant Brombeere. The typical growth formation is for long arching stems to grow outwards, each one armed with a formidable set of modified branches known to us as true thorns. These differ from plant spines such as Cacti, and our native Holly, possess which are in fact leaves adapted to reduce water-loss. Rather like the teeth of a shark, Bramble thorns are recurved so that once impaled you cannot free yourself by pulling back from it.
How does the plant benefit from capturing unwary animals? The sight of a lamb trapped in a Bramble bush is quite common. Many arguments have been put forward. Could it be that throughout millenia an ecological relationship formed between plant and predating animals; one trapping small prey for the other in return for copious amounts of nutritious dung? Biologists refer to this as Mutualism and, as unlikely as it sounds, many such bonds occur in Ma Nature’s catalogue of wonder. It may be that in a less obvious display of carniverous behaviour the plant just waits for ensnared animals to die and add their own nutrients to the soil; or that the backward-facing thorns are nothing more than a climbing aid as the branches snake their way up trees and rocks.
Whatever the reason for the plant having such a fine array of armament, the fact remains that conservationists and Blackberry-pickers alike pay a high price for their love of nature reserves and fruit crumble respectively. Botanically the berry is classed as an Aggregate Fruit as it is in fact made up of several small fruit or drupelets. Seeds are dispersed very effectively by several species of bird and animal; one sure way of verifying the presence of our much loved Brock is to look for the seed-ridden, Bramble-black dung. According to legend, the fruit should not be picked after Old Michaelmas Day (October 10th or 11th, depending on which calendar you use) as Lucifer was cast from Heaven on that date and landed in a Blackberry bush. He was so angry that in a pique of un-angelic, yobbish behaviour he spoilt the fruit by urinating on them. Presumably this was after carefully extracating himself from the recurved thorns!
..The Hobbits landed, in a drop of no more than a dozen feet, with a thud and a crunch into the last thing they expected: a tangle of thorny bushes.
‘Bless me, Mr Frodo, but I didn’t know as anything grew in Mordor! But if I had a’known, this is just what I’d have looked for.’
The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien.
So there it is, as M.R. James might have put it, ‘A warning to the curious’; enjoy our little reserve but do not stray off the footpaths as who knows what fiendishly designed snares are waiting!
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