Brilliant brambles

Bramble illustration by Sonia Hensler

Brambles are one of the most common and recognisable plants in the British countryside. Even from an early age, a bramble’s cruel barbs acquaint us intimately; as do purple stained fingers and lips – the badges of a burgeoning berry harvester.

In fact, the bramble is so ubiquitous that, until it produces its prized fruit or snags a passer-by, it often goes unnoticed. Gardeners lament as its grasping tendrils encroach on lawns or paths and we thwack it back if it dare distinguish itself from the general hedgerow haze. However, if we can look beyond the fierce exterior and put the plant’s rapacious reputation to the back of our collective minds, brambles are one of the most important, prolific and misunderstood components of the countryside.

What are commonly known as brambles are, in actual fact, a genus called Rubus which currently comprises as many as 2000 known species belonging to the rose family (Rosaceae) This genus are one of nature’s great survivors, perfectly adapted and doggedly determined, they persist and even thrive in an astonishing array of habitats, ranging from woodland, hedgerows and heathland to sand dunes, cities and gardens. If you go out for a walk, the chances are good that you will see a bramble or several.  Their seeds can survive for up to a hundred years before conditions are right for growth and the plants are able to reproduce clonally, without sexual reproduction, sometimes through the use of rhizomes.

If you aren’t familiar with the wonderful, subterranean hustle of the rhizome then read on, dear reader! If this is all old hat to you then please skip the next paragraph….

A rhizome, sometimes called a ‘creeping rootstalk’, is basically a horizontal underground plant stem that is capable of creating the root and shoot systems of a new plant. This ingenious bit of evolution not only allows the parent plant to reproduce itself but also enables the plants to store starches and proteins in order to survive an unfavourable season. Bamboos, ginger, turmeric and lotus are all rhizomes and for some plants, such as water lilies and many ferns, the rhizome is the only stem that the plant possesses. Great stuff, but anyway…

The importance of brambles to wildlife

The Rubus gang earns their keep by providing essential sustenance for a whole heap of animals in the wild. Bramble blossom (a beautiful flower in its own right) is a rich source of nectar for bees and a list-as-long-as-your-arm of butterflies, right through the summer months.

A soldier beetle and a shield bug visit the flower of Rubus cinerosiformis in the fields at Tregew, near Roundwood Quay
A soldier beetle and a shield bug visit the flower of Rubus cinerosiformis in the fields at Tregew, near Roundwood Quay, Cornwall
A soldier beetle and a shield bug visit the flower of Rubus cinerosiformis in the fields at Tregew, near Roundwood Quay

Even whilst these pollinators are doing their thing, the bramble’s distinctive leaves are providing food for many types of caterpillar, insect larvae and browsing mammals such as deer. In a busy old place such as Trelissick, a bramble patch is not so much an eyesore or a scruffy hindrance, as a thorny fortification offering much needed shelter and protection for ground nesting birds as they seek sanctuary from dogs and visitors.

Wood mice rely on blackberries and the shelter of brambles to survive
A wood mouse, a species greatly reliant on bramble bushes for survival
Wood mice rely on blackberries and the shelter of brambles to survive

In the autumn, when brambles begin to produce their famous fruit they are important all over again for many mammals and birds over the lean winter months.  As well as small mammals like the wood mouse and dormouse, blackberries are eaten by larger, night-time prowlers such as badgers and foxes. It might sound like a curious thing to mention, but if you spot a badger latrine during berry harvesting season, they are often bright purple, owing to the volume of fruit that has been consumed.

A bit of local history

Many of you will probably not know that the story of bramble botany has a notable Cornish contributor called Frederick Hamilton Davey. Davey was born on 10th September 1868 in the Cornish village of Ponsanooth. He left school at the age of 11 and went to work in the Kennall Vale gunpowder factory, although he had already developed a keen interest in natural history and often walked the lanes in his spare time, making notes on birds, insects and plants.

At the age of 17, Davey suffered an attack of rheumatic fever and was left with a weak heart which eventually left him unable to work. During his recovery period, he spent much of his time making observations in his garden and the surrounding countryside.  Davey’s ill health continued in the following years, although he did find a part-time job keeping books at the arsenic factory and writing the odd piece for local papers. His interest in botany also continued unabated and he became a specialist on flowering plants and ferns (including brambles).

In 1899, aged 31, Davey met Allan Octavian Hume who persuaded him to write a Flora of Cornwall. Hume was a notable and well respected ornithologist who had spent a great deal of his life living in India and was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress Party – the party that was later used as a vehicle by Gandhi in the fight for independence that was finally granted by Britain, in August 1947.

One of Davey’s original bramble cuttings – later to be named Rubus daveyi – now kept at the Royal Cornwall Museum
One of Frederick Hamilton Davey’s original bramble cuttings now kept at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro
One of Davey’s original bramble cuttings – later to be named Rubus daveyi – now kept at the Royal Cornwall Museum

By 1903, Davey had become the youngest member of the Linnean Society (the world’s oldest active biological society) He and his colleagues – many of whom were volunteers – spent almost a decade, scouring the green spaces of Cornwall and collecting an awesome array of plants for his book, including about 90 species of bramble. In 1909, his Flora of Cornwall was finally published to favourable reviews:

“… the skilled labour of ten years bound up in a volume which the crowd will never see but which will live in the halls of science and be numbered among the botanical classics.” - The Daily Mail

Davey died a fortnight after his 47th birthday in 1915. As news of his death became known, people throughout Cornwall gathered wild flowers from fields and hedgerows, to send to the Wesleyan Chapel, Ponsanooth.

Later, in 1950, Cornishman Francis Rilstone named a particularly fine species of bramble Rubus daveyi in honour of his friend. Davey’s original cutting of this bramble can be seen in the above image, although it was named differently – apparently erroneously- at this time.

Davey’s beautifully prepared and presented herbarium of about 4,000 sheets is kept at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. One of his legacies is a collection of bramble specimens.

Thanks and credit must be given where it is due – this section of the article could not have been created without the assistance of local botanist Keith Spurgin and his sister Selina Bates. The information here borrows heavily (bordering whole-sale) from their book about Davey (Stars in the Grass – The Story of Cornish Naturalist Frederick Hamilton Davey 1868-1915) published in 1994, and from my own correspondence with Keith. Keith’s passion for brambles and botany continues to be an inspiration – hopefully this article will meet with his approval.

Blackberries – the stars of the show

The fruit produced by the bramble is, of course, called a blackberry. However, in strictly botanical terms, a blackberry is not actually a berry at all. If you examine one yourself this summer, you will see that each ‘berry’ is made up of many tiny, juicy balls (for want of a better word) and each of these is actually a fruit in itself. These mini fruits (or drupelets as they are more accurately named) surround a firm core (called a torus) and make up what is referred to as an aggregate fruit.

According to archaeological evidence, blackberries have been foraged and eaten for at least 8000 years and are more highly prized in Western Europe than anywhere else in the world.  It is however, in Britain where the tiny purple fruit is gathered most fervently, and where ‘black-berrying’ fills a special cultural niche as both a recreational activity and a way of collecting food.

The berries are a key component of many classic British desserts that we all know and love, such as blackberry and apple pie, fruit crumbles and summer pudding, but why not try making ‘Truro Pudding’? This recipe was kindly supplied by Truro resident Selina Bates and was recently published in The Guardian:

Truro Pudding recipe

This is a great pudding served warm with Cornish clotted cream, creme fraiche or yoghurt.

Serves 6-8

1 large bramley apple, peeled, cored and sliced
150g blackberries
170g butter, plus extra for greasing
140g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
3 eggs
170g self-raising flour


Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Place the slices of apple and the blackberries in a lightly greased, deep, 20cm-wide cake tin or deep, glass pudding dish, then sprinkle over 1 tbsp caster sugar.

Cream together the rest of the sugar and butter with an electric whisk until light pale, then add the eggs one at a time, alternating with the flour. Pour the batter over the fruit, then cook for around 30 minutes, until risen and golden. Allow to cool a little, sprinkle with sugar, then serve warm.

In conclusion, it is difficult not to admire this stubborn plant – tough, flexible and evolved enough to prosper, wherever it may occur. This article is our small way of offering respect and tribute to these unfairly maligned and incredibly important cornerstones of the British countryside. Bramble – we salute you!

- The National Trust ranger team, Trelissick and North Helford