Saturday, 31 August 2013

A Bumper Year for Blackberries

Posted by Richard Moyse, Ranscombe Farm Reserve Manager

At Plantlife's Ranscombe Farm Reserve, the wood-edges and path-sides are fat with blackberries as the summer draws towards its close. The first fruits are already temptingly glossy and black, while behind them the mass of tight, green unripe berries suggests a bumper harvest yet to come.

It looks like it's going to be a great year for our favourite wild fruit. Perhaps it's just the pleasure of a classic British summer showing us everything through rose-tinted glasses, but I think not. The last year's dullness and wet may have made for poor flowering and fruit production, but it provided good growing conditions for a whole range of wild plants. As a result, when the good weather arrived, there was plenty of energy to put into making flowers.

Earlier in the year, Ranscombe's woodlands were a mass of living colour, as orchids and other flowers had a jamboree. That the brambles were also fit and vigorous was obvious in midsummer, as their prickly, arching stems romped across paths and tracks, making it necessary to be out with the strimmer much earlier than in most years. Brambles are nothing if not mobile: questing stems spread out from the centre of the plant, and, where the stem-tips touch the ground, they root to eventually form a tangled, impenetrable mass.

Impenetrable to us, that is, for the dense, thorny cover is a great place for nesting birds such as wrens and long-tailed tits, as well as for small mammals. Young trees, too, if not completely swamped, can grow up through the bramble patch, safely protected from the predations of deer.

The other key to the mobility of brambles is, of course, the thing we love most about them: blackberries. The sweet, juicy berries (more accurately, a blackberry isn't technically a berry, but an aggregrate of many small fruits called drupelets, each with a single seed) are eaten by blackbirds, thrushes and other birds, which unwittingly carry and eventually pop out the seeds some at distance from the parent plant. The droppings in badger latrine pits are often stained dark at this time of year, as the animals fill themselves with as many blackberries as they can find, and the fruit is also popular with foxes, voles, mice and dormice. Even insects like butterflies and wasps will come to damaged fruit to sip at the juices.

It's known that Neolithic people ate blackberries around 5000 years ago, so going blackberrying to make jam, or blackberry vinegar or (a personal favourite) blackberry and apple pie is continuing a tradition as old - if not older - than any other. Brambles are so widespread in countryside and town that they are available to almost anyone for the price of a pleasant hour and a few scratches. So why not grab a bag or plastic tub and head out to your nearest bramble patch and play a small part in an ancient association between people and an indomitable wild plant?