Wildlife with an amateur observer
THE blackberries came early this year and it’s been a bountiful crop. This is a great ‘emergency fruit’ for walkers and it’s a favourite of jam-makers too.
The bramble, or briar, is an ubiquitous plant that is found in nearly every hedge in Ireland. The bane of modern gardeners, it once had a variety of uses and was consequently given protection in early Irish law.
As is the case with our family, many people have preferred locations for blackberry picking. In these places, it’s not just the soil and exposure to sunlight that make the berries better. The variations in fruit quality are also because of the myriad different species of bramble that are found around West Cork.
Look closely at the blackberry flowers or fruit in a hedge and you will see many variations in colour and size. Over 400 micro-species have been recognised to date in Britain. These genetic differences mean that the bramble’s botanical name, ‘Rubus fruticosus’, often has the addition ‘sens. lat.’ meaning ‘in the wide sense,’ reflecting the many varieties in the species.
Most hedge shrubs in Ireland flower in spring but it’s June before the blackberry comes into flower. Pale pink petals surround the female parts of the flower which, once fertilised, produce the autumn fruit.
The blackberries form in clusters at the end of mature shoots, which die back after two or three years’ fruiting. The berry at the very tip of the stalk is the first to ripen and this is the sweetest and fattest of all. A few weeks later, the other berries near the end ripen, but they are never as juicy and sweet as the first.
Any gardener will attest to the stubborn qualities of the humble briar. As a member of the rose family, it has vicious thorns. Its ability to root at both ends (sometimes referred to as a ‘double bramble’) make it extremely difficult to eradicate once established.
These long, arching bramble stems were once known as ‘lawyers’ because of the difficulty in extraditing oneself from their clutches once ensnared!
Blackberries have been eaten for millennia and feature strongly as a food source in Irish myth and legend. The ancient warriors of Ireland, the Fianna, were said to feast on ‘beautiful blackberries’ while an early Irish poem gives testimony to their use as a crop for the women of the Fianna too.
In Ireland, blackberries were traditionally eaten mashed up in a form of porridge but in more recent times their primary use is in making jams and jellies. However, my cousin has the best use of all for them in making her legendary blackberry vodka (thanks Patricia). That very same talented cousin also uses the leaves of blackberries to ‘eco dye’ her silk scarves.
Traditionally, the roots of bramble were used to dye wool orange (mixed with other plants) and a dark green. A bramble root often formed the core of a hurling ball while the long shoots were used in thatching and wickerwork.
Bramble had a variety of medicinal uses too. Blackberry jelly was given as a cure for dropsy while the cordial was said to have great restorative powers. Briar leaves were once used in Ireland and Britain to cure diarrhoea in both people and cattle and, in Scotland, they were also placed on burns and scalds.
In England, the young stalks of the blackberry were also once peeled and eaten for their sweetness. They were also considered to be cure for fastening loose teeth.
The bramble’s many uses in Ireland led to its designation as one of the ‘bushes of the wood’ and, as such, it was given protection under the Brehon Laws. The unlawful clearing of a whole field of a neighbour’s brambles was subject to a fine of one ‘dairt’ (a year-old heifer) under these laws.
Bramble was also considered to have special powers, both for good and bad. It was used to protect graves and to cast spells and invoke evil spirits.
Whether it’s in crumble, jam, vodka or eco dying, enjoy using this ancient Irish crop in whatever way you fancy. But do make sure to eat some off the hedge too!
How to make your own blackberry jam
• 350g blackberries
• 350g preserving sugar
• Juice of one lemon
• Knob of butter
1. If you have handpicked your blackberries from the wild, then first you will need to soak the fruit in salted water for a couple of hours. This cleans and destroys any bugs. After soaking, rinse well in clean water.
2. Prepare your jars: you will need a minimum of two empty jars with lids. Ensure they are clean. Warm in an oven on about 100 degrees C.
3. Place your blackberries, sugar and lemon juice into a large saucepan and place on the hob on a low heat.
4. Gently heat and fold the sugar into the blackberries until dissolved.
5. Bring the fruit to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally and let the fruit simmer for about 10 to 12 minutes. A slight froth should start to appear as the fruit boils. (Do not feel tempted to increase the heat to boil quickly; the key is a gentle boil).
6. Place a knob of butter on top of the fruit and stir across the top into the froth. The butter is used to break down the froth. If you still have excess then remove the frothy bubbles with a spoon. Remove saucepan from heat.
7. Do the fridge test: place a small amount of jam on to a plate and place in the fridge. Leave for a few minutes and then remove. Tilt the plate and the jam should crinkle. If the jam is still runny
then place back onto heat and boil gently for a further two minutes. Test again.
8. You are now ready to place your mixture into your jars and place lids on. Allow to cool and then place in the fridge.
9. Your jam is then ready to eat the following day.
(Recipe courtesy of BBC Good Food)