Covered in pinkish white flowers, bramble patches are full of promise – blackberries are on their way. It’s one of the first shrubs monitored by Nature’s Calendar* to fruit, and towards the end of July and throughout summer, we’ll be enjoying blackberry crumble!
While you’re checking to see if the fruit is ripe, you’ll be able to spot a whole host of insects enjoying the nectar; but a bramble patch is home, food, and protection for a much wider range of wildlife.
Nesting homes and protective spaces
The dense thorny arches of brambles may make foraging difficult for us, but they provide prickly protection from predators. Earlier this year robins, blackbirds, wrens, and thrushes were among the birds who chose bramble patches as safe nesting places. Hylaeus, a small solitary bee, makes brood cells in hollowed out stems, while wood mice, hedgehogs and even grass snakes hide inside the bramble patches.
The clusters of open flowers are ideal for bumblebees, honeybees, and solitary bees, as well as wasps, lacewings, and hoverflies. You may also be able to see butterflies including brimstones, orange tips, red admirals, and speckled wood. All of them eating their fill without having to travel far. It’s not just the nectar that’s being eaten. Buff arches, fox moth and garden tiger moth caterpillars all feed on the leaves. So, there’s a lot to look out for while checking out the bramble patch.
Fruit for all
We’ve been gathering and eating blackberries since the Neolithic, and its name comes from the Old English – braembel, meaning impenetrable thicket. Still popular in jams, crumbles, cordials, and liqueurs, it’s such an important wild fruit it has its own verb – brambling and brambled. It’s not just the fruit that we’ve gathered, bramble leaves and roots have also been used in traditional medicine. A natural source of salicylate, they act as an anti-inflammatory and an astringent, and have been used for pain relief, to treat wounds, sooth mouth ulcers and stop bleeding.
A valuable source of vitamins, A, C, E and B that support the body’s immune system, blackberries are an important food and health boost for mice, dormice, squirrels, and birds. Foxes, badgers, and deer are also partial to these healthy treats and the Woodland Trust’s foraging guide is full of useful information, so you can enjoy gathering blackberries, while leaving enough for the wildlife.
The devil in the bramble patch
Brambles are fantastic survivors; they can spread through underground rhizomes, re-root when a stem touches the ground, increase their leaf surface to grow in deep shade, and if those survival strategies fail, their seeds can live for up to 100 years. Folklore says they need to be tough, because Lucifer landed in a bramble patch when he was cast out of heaven. Every Michaelmas Day (originally 10th October) the devil burns the brambles with his breath, spits, and stamps on them, making the fruit turn deep purple and bitter. The short shelf life of the fruit means it is one of the first to be eaten by birds.
The windswept rowan
If brambles grow in great patches, then rowan often stands alone. Living for up to 200 years, the moorland trees look different from the graceful ones in our gardens and parks. Even if we plant them for their small size, flowers, and berries, we’re following an old tradition that having a rowan near your front door, will protect your home from witches.
Also known as mountain ash, ‘witchwood’ and wizard’s tree, the clusters of bright fruit will start to ripen this month. Popular with blackbirds, bullfinches, song and mistle thrushes, they have a much longer shelf life than blackberries and there will still be enough to feed the redwings and fieldfares when they return in the autumn.
High in vitamins A and C, the berries have been used to flavour vodka, and make a jam that can be used in the same way as cranberry jelly. Though the raw berries are toxic, they’ve been used to treat stomach disorders, sinusitis, sooth sore throats and eyes, and as a remedy for rheumatism, stomach pain and asthma.
What else to look out for
Though we’re still in early summer, swifts are getting ready to leave. In 2019 they were last recorded between late July and mid-September. Their stay here is one of the shortest for the migratory birds (3 months) so make the most of them while you can. Yet there are still lots of signs of new life. Butterflies feed within a 100–200m radius from where they emerged, so if there’s a nettle patch near the brambles where they’re feeding, keep a look out for the caterpillars. Emperors, small tortosieshells and commas all lay their eggs on stinging nettles.
You can find out more about what’s been seen this year on the Nature’s Calendar website.
Written by Jane Halliday
*Nature’s Calendar is a citizen science project run by the Woodland Trust and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology to study phenology (the impact of seasonal changes in plants and animals).