The secret life of the bramble

Bramble is probably one of the most familiar plants in the Welsh countryside, and one that almost anyone could name, whether they are a wildlife lover or not. It is known best for its fearsome thorny defences, but also the blackberries that we cherish at this time of year. Yet despite its familiarity, or perhaps because of it, we often take it for granted, and bemoan our fight against its inquisitive tendrils in our gardens. We think we know all about it. Yet what most people would call Bramble is actually an aggregate- Rubus fruticosus agg.- made up of over 320 microspecies in the subgenus Rubus. So much is there to learn that it is considered a discipline of its own: batology, according to the Collins English Dictionary, is defined as the study of brambles (from the Ancient Greek, ‘baton’, blackberry). Bramble, it seems, still has a secret or two to reveal.

Blackberries Glanamman

Blackberries Glanamman

Officially considered a shrub, Bramble is ubiquitous and occurs in a wide array of habitats from woods, banks, heaths, hedgerows, sand dunes and even waste places; sometimes the latter are the most productive blackberrying spots. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, according to the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora (Preston, Pearman & Dines 2003) Bramble is present in every 10km2 square in Wales apart from a single upland square of the Snowdonia range.

One of the reasons that Bramble thrives in such an array of conditions is that it is excellently adapted to competitively acquire water, nutrients and light at the expense of other species. Whilst it thrives in direct sunlight, Bramble is also able to increase its leaf area in low light conditions to remain competitive, making it able also to tolerate deep shade; in this way it can potentially out-compete regenerating trees (Balandier et al 2012) and reach 100% ground cover even under a woodland canopy. Yet this can also have its uses to regenerating trees; it has been shown that brambles, because of the natural defence offered by the prickles, can reduce browsing damage by deer to young trees (Harmer et al 2009).

Of course Brambles provide important food sources to many species other than our own. They are important nectar sources for both bumblebees and Honey Bees (Fussell & Corbet, 1991). The leaves are food for many caterpillars such as the Fox Moth and they are also nibbled by large herbivores including our native deer. The flowers are the primary nectar source for the Silver-washed Fritillary and are a secondary nectar source for many more butterflies, including Brown Hairstreak, Comma, Gatekeeper, Grayling, Orange-tip, Ringlet and many more.

The fruit are also an important food source for many mammals and birds especially during the lean winter months. Experiments have shown that insects are not necessary for the pollination and fruit production of bramble (Jacobs et al, 2009) so at a time when the conservation of pollinators is a very real concern, the importance of fruiting bramble may be greater than ever in sustaining our food webs. As well as small mammals like Wood Mouse and Dormouse, blackberries are eaten by larger mammals such as Badgers and Foxes (Doncaster et al. 1990). Watch out for Badger latrines at this time of year, which are often coloured purple with the fruit that they have consumed.

The uses of Bramble in traditional medicine are abundant, making use of anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Bramble is traditionally used in the treatment of wounds, dysentery, diarrhoea, haemorrhoids, cystitis and even diabetes mellitus (Ali et al, 2013).

Many people, conservationists included, but also gardeners and farmers, spend time trying to clear Bramble, from open habitats especially. In so doing they are taking on one of nature’s survivors. It has a very long seed survival time (up to 100 years), is able to grow clonally without sexual reproduction by use of rhizomes and by re-rooting where tips touch the ground. The root system is perennial even though the above-ground sections are generally biennial and in a mild winter, first-year stems can even be semi-evergreen.

It is impossible not to respect the success of this amazing plant. Next time you spot bramble trying to sneak its way into your garden, why not let it? You’ll be amazed what a wealth of wildlife arrives with it.

References

Ali, N., Aleem, U., Wadood, S., Shah, A., Shah, I., Junaid, M., Ahmed, G., Ali, W. and Ghias, M. (2013). Acute toxicity, brine shrimp cytotoxicity, anthelmintic and relaxant potentials of fruits of Rubus fruticosus Agg. BMC Complementary Alternative Medicine. Published online. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-13-138

Balandier, P. Marquier, A., Casella, E., Kiewitt, A., Coll, L., Wehrlen, L. and Harmer, H. (2012) Architecture, cover and light interception by bramble (Rubus fruticosus): a common understorey weed in temperate forests. Forestry 86 (4) published online.

Doncaster, CP., Dickman, CR. And Macdonald, DW (1990) Feeding ecology of red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in the city of Oxford, England. Journal of Mammalogy 71 (2) pp. 188-194.

Fussel, M. and Corbet, SA. (1991). Forage for bumblebees and honey bees in farmland: a case study. Journal of Apicultural Research 30 (2) pp. 87-97

Harmer, R., Kiewitt, A., Morgan, G. and Gill, R. (2009) Does the development of Bramble (Rubus fruticosus L. agg.) facilitate the growth and establishment of tree seedlings in woodlands by reducing deer browsing damage. Forestry 83 (1) published online.

Jacobs, JH., Clark, SJ., Denholm, I., Goulson, D., Stoate, C. and Osborne, JL. (2009) Pollination biology of fruit-bearing hedgerow plants and the role of flower-visiting insects in fruit-set. Annals of Botany 104 (7) pp. 1397-1404