The season of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness' is fast approaching, and one of the treasures of this time of year in my humble opinion is the blackberry. This delightful berry, according to a discussion I had on the old Herb Society forum many moons ago, is number one on the top ten antioxidant-rich foods list. The blackberry is a wonderfully useful plant that provides, fruit, leaves and blossoms to make a variety of herbal remedies, teas, wine and a wealth of sweet and savoury dishes.
As a young girl, I was given a copy of a book by Cicely Mary Barker full of paintings of 'flower fairies' and poems, one that stuck out in my mind and I still recall is 'The song of the Blackberry Fairy', in fact, when out picking blackberries, I can be heard to recite the poem, much to the amusement of passers by. It brings back fond childhood memories of picking those tasty, shiny black jewels, one for me, one for the basket until I could eat no more and I walked home arms and hands scratched, jumper snagged, with sticky purple fingers and a chin full of blackberry juice, yum!
Once I got home the berries I hadn't managed to eat were handed over to my Mum so that she could turn them into a pie for after tea. As I grew older, the blackberries I picked were for my kitchen and, as well as pies and jam, I began making wine from the bounty. Blackberry wine makes a wonderful base for mulled wine in the winter especially if you add fresh orange juice, cinnamon and a pinch of cloves.
The blackberry name derives from brambel, or brymbyl, which means prickly and is also known as the bramble, goutberry and scaldhead. The name scaldhead is from the belief that children who ate too many blackberries, subsequently suffered with a disease of the scalp called scald head. As an aside, did you know that the Anglo-Saxon name for the blackberry was the bramble-apple?
Blackberries have been part of the diet in England since early Neolithic times. Seeds from the blackberry were found in the stomach contents of a Neolithic man dug up at Walton-on-the Naze in Essex in 1911. The ancient significance of blackberries is also apparent from several myths that surround it. It was believed that the blackberry bush helped protect the dead from the devil and they were often found planted on graves to protect the loved one from evil.
There are many folk tales surrounding the blackberry, the most common one being a debate on the correct time to pick them, as the season runs from August until November it is suggested that the early-ripening berries are the best. According to biblical tales, when the devil was cast out from heaven he landed on a blackberry bush, afterwards he's said to have cursed the blackberry because of its thorns. So any blackberries picked after Michaelmas day (29th September) are said to have the devil's spittle on them.
There is also a folk taboo about not picking blackberries after 10 October, because during the night the Devil either spits, stamps or urinates (depending on which telling of the tale one reads) on every bush. The origin of this myth relates to Lucifer having been cast out of heaven at Michaelmas (29 September), which corresponds with 10 October in the pre-1752 Julian calendar. The warning probably has more to do with the presence of leaf hopper insects, that form a saliva-like foam barrier around themselves before hatching into the adult insect.
Blackberries were considered to be sacred to the old Pagan deities and dishes made with blackberries were included on the feasting menus of the day. In some folklore, blackberries symbolise generosity, whilst in others it symbolises grief. Old wives used blackberries in charms to create wealth, and in days gone by in England, walking underneath blackberry runners was said to be a cure for many ailments including rheumatism and whooping cough, or chincough as my Nanna called it!
Blackberry is one of the most easily identified wild herbs that grow in the UK; almost everyone is familiar with them, thanks to the tradition of blackberry picking, which is still practiced by 'townies' today. The blackberry belongs to the genus Rubus and the Rosaceae family and has no fewer than 2,000 varieties. It grows up to 3m and comprises a mass or prickly arched stems, which often grow down to the ground to root and form new plants. The stems from spring to late autumn are covered in leaves that have three to five leaflets which have a white or grey downy underside. The flowers have 5 petals and appear from late spring to early summer. These can be white or pale to deep pink in colour and most forms of the flowers have a rather pleasant scent. The flowers fade in late summer to produce fruits which are green at first, changing to red and being fully ripe when they turn deep purple to black.
The wild varieties are wonderful, but some people believe that cultivated varieties have a better flavour. Personally, I don't think the flavour of wild berries picked by your own hand can be bettered. The blackberry season begins at the start of July and continues up until early October if the weather isn't to cold and damp. It's best to pick the berries little and often to encourage the formation of more fruit and the best time to pick them is when the weather is dry because wet blackberries won't keep longer than a day. Note: It is not advisable to pick blackberries growing close to busy roads due to the toxins from the traffic fumes.
Blackberries are perennial plants that bear fruit on biennial canes. The roots live on indefinitely, sending up new shoots each year that will produce fruit in their second season and then they die. Blackberries grow well with absolutely no care in the wild, but you need to do some routine maintenance when cultivating blackberries to prevent your garden turning into a blackberry patch!
Choose a site that gets full sun. Blackberries will tolerate some shade, but the more sun they have the more fruit they'll produce, especially in cold regions. Prepare the planting area well and dig in plenty of compost to provide the right soil conditions.
The soils should be free draining but have the ability to retain moisture. Buy healthy plants from a reputable source and plant them in early spring or in autumn. Plant the blackberry plants in the ground at the same level they were in their pots, spacing them about four feet apart. Cut back your blackberries to about six inches above the ground and then water well and apply a thick mulch to help retain the moisture in the soil, which is useful when the fruit is setting. If the blackberry is starved of moisture the berries will not be plump and full.
Pests and disease can be a problem so keep an eye out for blackberry rust. This disease shows itself as red spots on the top of the leaves, followed by yellow spots on the underside of the leaf which eventually turn black. Aphids can be a problem, especially on new shoots in early spring, so spray with an organic pest control such as a liquid soap spray. Mildew can also be a problem as can botrytis which is a type of grey mould. There isn't currently an effective organic control for mildew, but you could try treating with a sodium bicarbonate solution using 5 to10g per litre of water. With mildew, prevention is better than cure so do not over water your plants in the winter, giving them adequate ventilation and do not letting them dry out in summer.
Since the 1st century AD, blackberries have been used medicinally. The Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (c40 - 90 AD) advocated using the berries for treating sore throats when made in to a gargle and chewing the fresh raw leaves to stop gums bleeding. The leaves have been used for cleaning wounds and for staunching blood flow. The leaves are also useful as a tonic and have astringent properties. They have long been used to help cure dysentery, diarrhoea and piles. They are also a good source of tannin, flavonoids and gallic acid, whilst the berries are a rich source of vitamin C and contain pectin, making them an ideal choice for jam making.
Culpeper advocated the use of buds, leaves and branches of the blackberry for treating putrid sores in the mouth and throat. Gerard recommended mixing blackberry leaves that had been first boiled in water with honey, alum and a little white wine to make a lotion for washing the face which is the same decoction he also recommended for 'fastening' the teeth. In Robinson's 'New Family Herbal' the leaves when boiled in a lye solution are said to be good for washing the head that is itchy, although doing this tended to make the hair go black.
Blackberry extract is excellent for cleansing the body and removing toxins and impurities. Add some blackberry extract or homemade blackberry cordial to peppermint or chamomile tea to give the body a boost. A dash added to yarrow tea is useful for treating colds and flu, as is blackberry vinegar, which has long been a remedy for treating feverish colds.
The juicy berries are traditionally made into jam, pies, crumbles, wine and vinegar. The fruit should always be picked over and washed before eating or cooking. When cooked, blackberries are often combined with apples as the two flavours compliment each other. Another reason for adding apples to blackberry jam is they supply the acid and pectin necessary to help the jam set, without the need to add artificial pectin. The berries and the young shoot tips make a good wine and the leaves and berries can also be dried and used as a tea.
Blackberries freeze well too. Pack them in rigid containers and freeze for up to 1 year. You can use the fruit from frozen for many hot puddings - just increase the cooking time by about 10 minutes.
Blackberries have another use in the kitchen but not in a culinary way. The fruit when mordanted with alum gives a slate blue natural dye whilst the roots yield an orange colour that can be used as a dye for wool and cotton.
© Debs Cook