Delicious Bramble Delights!
Updated: Aug 11, 2022
by Frances Watkins, Medical Herbalist Bramble or wild blackberry is a member of the rose family and native to northern, central and eastern Europe. It is also known by its Latin synonym Rubus fructicosus L. and is found on waste land, in woodlands and hedgerows with an abundance of thorns which will ensure the livestock stay in the fields!
The name bramble stems from the Old English root of bræmbel or brǣmel, meaning a wild scrubby bush with thorns and black berries; some people still refer to them as brambleberries which says it all. The flowers appear from June through to October and according to folklore, the berries must be picked before 28 October when the Devil sets his foot on the brambles and spoils the fruit (Cork and Nutall, 1911). The purple fruits are high in vitamin c and a rich source of anthocyanins which have many health benefits including anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial effects, as well as prevention of cardiovascular diseases (Khoo et al, 2017). In 2018, a fourth year student won the BT Young Scientist and Technologist of the Year for identifying antimicrobial compounds in blackberry leaf that inhibited growth of both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria.
The tannins in the leaves and roots are astringent and explain why these parts have been traditionally used to treat diarrhoea. Penny Ody (1988) tells us blackberry wine was also kept as a country standby for loose bowels... The juiced berries were used externally for a wide range of skin conditions including sores, spots, skin wounds and as a gargle for sore throats (Allen and Hatfield, 2004). Woodward (1927) published an edited version of Gerard's herbal, Historie of Plants (1636) and on the blackberry which says:
The bramble groweth for the most part in every hedge and bush...The ripe fruit is sweet, and containeth in it much juyce of a temperate heate, therefore it is not unpleasant to be eaten...the leaves of bramble boyled in water make a most excellent lotion or washing water, and the same decoction fastneth the teeth (p.276)
During World War I food was rationed and looking for enterprising projects to maximise natural food sources, the government encouraged children in rural areas to pick blackberries for the Government Jam scheme . Scholars of Newton Road and North End day schools in Rushden, Northampton gathered over 1,200 Ib which was sent to the collection centre. In 1918 one newspaper reported this activity as the National Blackberry Collection with some schools collecting over 2,000 Ib which is equivalent to one metric tonne!
Make a foraged herbal tea Collect the bramble leaves when they are young and bright green. Snip off from stalks and lay on a tray to dry -keep in the shade and turn frequently, making sure there is plenty of air flow. The Medicinal Forest Garden Trust has some good tips on drying plant material. When the leaves are crisp you can store in airtight jars to keep for use over winter.
Collect berries for winter Wild blackberries will be ripe for picking from the end of August right through to October - plan ahead and find a bush where you will be able to harvest juicy and sweet tasting berries in a few weeks. I have adapted a recipe for a blackberry shrub from Jill Nice (1990) and made it with honey instead of sugar and brandy and, being rich in Vitamin C, you can use it as an immune support throughout the winter. Ingredients I kg blackberries, picked and cleaned 1 tablespoon each allspice berries and whole cloves (optional)
A crushed piece of a cinnamon stick and nutmeg (optional)
Equal amount of honey
Piece of muslin for straining Warm sterilised bottles
Pick your blackberries on a dry day before the midday sun and after the dew has evaporated. Place fruit in a glass basin or bowl to prevent bruising or getting squashed as the juice will readily flow when the fruit is ripe. When you return home, pick over the berries, discarding any that are unripe (red or green), stalks and leaves and set aside the black ones on a plate for 30 minutes to allow any insects to leave!
Some people like to wash their fruit; I recall my granny putting the berries in the bath and soaking in cold water to encourage the insects to leave the fruit although I prefer not to wash mine - the main consideration is to be selective when collecting your bounty and identify a number of locations that are remote, away from pesticides and heavy traffic, and higher than dogs can pee! Alternatively, you could grow in your garden and perhaps consider a thorn less variety for example, Blackberry Merton Thornless.
Weigh out the berries and place in the pan with the crushed spices and just enough water to prevent sticking. You could also include star anise and increase/decrease amount of other spices depending on your own personal preference. Cover, bring to the boil and gently simmer for 20 mins. Take off the heat and leave to cool before pouring into a square of muslin previously scalded with boiling water, hang up and leave for 30 mins for the juice to drip through. I have also made this without the spices so the choice is yours and maybe make both ways and compare ready for next year?
Measure out the juice in a saucepan and for each 600 mL add an equal amount of honey. Gently heat through juice and honey, bring to the boil and simmer for 3-5 mins, removing any scum. Remove the pan from the heat and pour into warm sterilised bottles and seal with lined screw-top lids or corks. When cold, label including the date it was made and harvest location and store in a cool dark place; unopened should keep over the winter.
Dose One teaspoon 1-3 times per day taken neat or added to cup of boiling water. Ideal to help keep away colds and good for sore throats too. Once opened, keep in the fridge and use within 4 weeks.
Delicious and nutritious food Whether it be blackberry and apple pie, bramble jelly or jam, fruit and floral vinegars or salad dressing, all these delicious foods have nutritional value too. The fruits make excellent gins and whiskeys - try brambleberries with lavender and mint flowers or lemon balm and cinnamon, you are only limited by your imagination and made now, will be ready to drink by December. A herbal or fruit vinegar is a zingy drink you can make for all the family - a teaspoon diluted in a mug of boiling water and adjusted to your own personal taste. Maggie Oster's book Herbal Vinegar is full of delicious recipes and worth keeping an eye out for a second hand copy on the internet or your local bookshop. And lastly, a bit of nostalgia listening to Seamus Heaney reading his poem titled 'Blackberry Picking' and take heed, as soon as you return home with your cache, make the jam or jelly and don't leave until tomorrow...
Allen, D.E. and Hatfield, G. (2004). Medicinal plants in folk tradition. Cambridge: Timber Press. Cork, H.E. and Nuttall, G. C. (c1911). Wild flowers as they grow. Vol 3, London: Waverley Book Company.
Ody, P. (1988). Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, in the Herbal Review. London: The Herb Society, (3), pp.22-25.
Khoo, H.E., Azian, A., Tang, S.T. and Lim, S.M. (2017). Anthocyanidins and anthocyanins: colored pigments as food, pharmaceutical ingredients, and the potential health benefits, Food Nut Res 61(1), pp. doi: 10.1080/16546628.2017.1361779 Woodward, M. (1927). Gerard's Herball. Reprint, London: Minerva Press,1971.
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