Thursday, 14 June 2018

Bramble/Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus agg.)

BRAMBLE or BLACKBERRY (the Rubus fruticosus aggregate)
Family: Rosaceae

The joys of blackberrying form fond childhood memories for many of us. The patient parental urgings to put at least a few berries into the family baskets rather than straight into our mouths, the inevitable scratches from the hooked bramble prickles, the infuriating ‘trip-snares’ formed by the brambles arching over and rooting at the tip and, above all, the unlimited supplies of juicy fruits that come in wide array of distinctive forms and flavours. Even as children, we quickly learned to recognise from a distance the brambles that produced the best fruits and those where it was pointless even to contemplate searching for fruits worth harvesting.

Blackberries gathered for immediate
consumption. (Etchingham, August 2003)
The taxonomy of Rubus species is extremely complex. A botanist called William Watson spent much of his life researching the genus and in his Handbook of the Rubi of Great Britain and Ireland he describes some 286 species (Watson 2013). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species states: “The taxonomy of Rubus species is very challenging. Rubus fruticosus comprises an aggregate of over 329 closely-related microspecies in Rubus subgenus Rubus, most of which are facultatively apomictic. Each microspecies breeds true[i], just like normal species, but in this case it is the result of producing viable seeds without fertilisation (termed ‘apomixis’), so the same genes are present as in the parent plant—similar to cuttings or other vehicles for vegetative propagation.

The young shoot-buds of brambles
make a great wayside snack in spring-time.
(Hailsham, March 2009)
Brambles are ubiquitous throughout Britain and Ireland (for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora). They grow in waste places, hedgerows, roadsides, clearings in woodland, riverbanks, abandoned pasture, and on unmanaged land in a wide range of other locations. In many parts of the world they are considered to be invasive weeds that are extremely difficult to eradicate (for details see: CABI Invasive Species Compendium).

Blackberries in different stages of
ripeness. (Hailsham, September 2008)
Blackberries grow in clusters at the end of older shoots that die after two or three years cropping. In his book ‘Food for Free’, Richard Mabey (1992: 80) explains: “the lowest berry - right at the tip of the stalk – is the first to ripen, and is the sweetest and fattest of all. Eat it raw. A few weeks later, the other berries near the end ripen; these are less juicy, but are still good for jams and pies. The small berries further back on the stalk do not ripen until October. They are hard and slightly bitter and are only really useful if cooked with some other fruit.” Autumn pudding in which blackberries are combined with other fruits such as bullaces, sloes, elderberries and crab apples is a delicious way to make use of the end of season fruits. Blackberries can also be used to make jams and syrups and a tea is made from an infusion of the dried leaves (Plants For A Future [PFAF] database).

Edible shoot-tips that snap off
crisply and whose spines are still soft.
(Ardeche Gorge, 2006)
Nutritional and medicinal properties of Rubus fruticosus
Rubus fruticosus plants (e.g., fruits, leaves, shoots, roots, stems) have many nutritional and medicinal properties. Blackberries are high in vitamins A, C and E, and are a rich source of potassium, carbohydrates (mostly in the form of sugars: fructose, glucose, sucrose) and dietary fibre; the fruits and other plant parts also contain high quantities of anthocyanins[ii] and other phenolic compounds (Kaume, et al. 2012; Verma et al. 2014; Zia-Ul-Haq et al. 2014). They can be used in antimicrobial, anticancer, antidysentery, antidiarrheal, antidiabetic and antioxidant remedies.
Prehistoric and historic usage
Rubus fruticosus remains are common on British and European archaeological sites of all periods (for references see Schultz-Motel 1994: 42). As has already been recorded for many of the soft fruits presented in the blog, blackberries are commonly found preserved waterlogged form in anaerobic conditions, for example, in pits containing faecal remains (e.g., the Worcester barrel-latrine, Greig 1981; see also: McCobb et al. 2001) and rubbish (e.g., the ‘Mirror Pit’ in Ferrara, Mazzanti et al. 2005). Amongst the earliest finds of fruits and other plant parts are those recorded at the Swiss and German Neolithic lakeside pile-dwelling settlements (‘Pfahlbauten’) where rubbish routinely deposited in the lakes was preserved by waterlogging in a near pristine state thus providing evidence of a range of household activities (Colledge and Conolly 2014; Jacomet 2006; see also: UNESCO - Welterbe Die Seite Pr√§historische Pfahlbauten um die Alpen). Several authors note the disparity between quantities of waterlogged versus charred blackberry remains found on prehistoric and early historic sites: the former are always greater (e.g., Colledge and Conolly 2014: table 4; Bosi et al. 2009: table 2; Bouby et al. 1999: 61, table 2; Brombacher and Hecker 2015: table 2; Hosch and Jacomet 2001: table 3; Jacomet 2006: table 3).  

There has been a long tradition of using Rubus fruticosus for its medicinal properties; Hummer (2010) notes that the efficacy of brambles was referred to by early Greek and Roman physicians, and is also alluded to in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic traditional medicines. Hippocrates (in a treatise dating between c. 500-370 BC) describes how to use the stems and leaves soaked in wine as “an astringent poultice on wounds and in difficulties of childbirth” (Hummer 2010: 1587-1588, citing Littre 1979). In a later work, De Materia Medica[iii] (written in about 65 AD), Dioscorides states that a decoction of the stems of brambles can be used to dye hair (see previous reference to anthocyanins), to stop diarrhea when drunk, and to cure bites of a snake referred to as the prester[iv] (Hummer and Janick 2007: 92; Hummer 2010: 1588). Dioscorides also notes that chewed leaves: “strengthen the gums and heal the thrush; plastered on, they keep in control shingles, treat head scurf, prolapses of the eyes, callous lumps, and hemorrhoids, and they are suitable to apply ground up on those with stomach and heart ailments” (ibid.). In the Anglo Saxon herbal the Leechbook of Bald[v] (dated to c. 920 AD and written in Winchester by several authors) use of bramble roots is cited as a cure for dysentery but only if certain Christian recitations are sung: “take the newer root, delve it up, cut up nine chips with the left hand and sing three times the Miserere mei Deus and nine times the Mater Noster then take mugwort and everlasting, boil these three worts and the chips in milk till they get red, then let the man sip at night fasting a pound dish full….” (for full details of the remedy see: Hummer and Janick 2007: 98).

Ripe Blackberries.
(Etchingham, August 2003)

Bouby, L., Leroy, F. and Carozza, L. 1999. Food plants from late Bronze Age lagoon sites in Languedoc, southern France: reconstruction of farming economy and environment. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 8: 53-69.

Bosi, G., Mercuri, A.M., Guarnieri, C. and Mazzanti, M.B. 2009. Luxury food and ornamental plants at the 15th century A.D. Renaissance court of the Este family (Ferrara, northern Italy). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 18: 389-402.

Brombacher, C. and Hecker, D. 2015. Agriculture, food and environment during Merovingian times: plant remains from three early medieval sites in northwestern Switzerland. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 24: 331-342.

CABI Invasive Species Compendium 2018. [accessed: 29.05.18]

Colledge, S. and Conolly, J. 2014. Wild plant use in European Neolithic subsistence economies: a formal assessment of preservation bias in archaeobotanical assemblages and the implications for understanding changes in plant diet breadth. Quaternary Science Reviews 101: 193-206.

Greig, J. 1981. The investigation of a Medieval barrel-latrine from Worcester. Journal of Archaeological Science 8: 265-282.

Hosch, S. and Jacomet, S. 2001. New aspects of archaeobotanical research in Central European Neolithic lake dwelling sites. Environmental Archaeology 6: 59-71.

Hummer, K.E. 2010. Rubus pharmacology: antiquity to present. HortScience 45(11): 1587-1591.

Hummer, K.E. and Janick, J. 2007. Rubus iconography: antiquity to the renaissance. Acta Horticulturae 759: 89-106.

Jacomet, S. 2006. Plant economy of the northern Alpine lake dwellings – 3500-2400 cal. BC. Environmental Archaeology 11(1): 65-85.
Kaume, L., Howard, L.R. and Devareddy, L. 2012. The blackberry fruit: a review on its composition and chemistry, metabolism and bioavailability, and health benefits. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 60: 5716-5727,

Littre, E. 1979. Oeuvres completes d’Hippocrate. Traduction Nouvelle avec le texte Grec en regard. Adolf M. Hakkert, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Mabey, R. 1992. Food for Free. Harper Collins, London.

Mazzanti, M.B., Bosi, G., Mercuri, A.M., Accorsi, C.A. and Guarnieri, C. 2005. Plant use in a city in Northern Italy during the late Mediaeval and Renaissance periods: results of the archaeobotanical investigation of “The Mirror Pit” (14th-15th century A.D.) in Ferrara. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 14: 442-452.

McCobb, L.M.E., Briggs, D.E.G., Evershed, R.P., Hall, A.R. and Hall, R.A. 2001. Preservation of fossil seeds from a 10th century AD cess pit at Coppergate, York. Journal of Archaeological Science 28: 929-940.

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. [accessed 24.05.18]

Plants For A Future (PFAF). [accessed: 29.05.18]

Schultz-Motel, J. 1994. Literature on archaeological remains of cultivated plants (1991/1992). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 3: 33-61.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2017-3 [accessed: 24.05.18]

UNESCO - Welterbe Die Seite Prähistorische Pfahlbauten um die Alpen 2017-2018. [accessed: 01.06.18]

Verma, R., Gangrade, T., Punasiya, R. and Ghulaxe, C. 2014. Rubus fruticosus (blackberry) use as an herbal medicine. Pharmacognosy Reviews 8(16): 101-104.

Watson, W.C.R. 2013. Handbook of the Rubi of Great Britain and Ireland. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Reissue edition. [available online at:]

Zia-Ul-Haq, M., Riaz, M., De Feo, V., Jaafar, H.Z.E. and Moga, M. 2014. Rubus fruticosus L.: constituents, biological activities and health related uses. Molecules 19: 10998-11029.

[i] For definition see: [accessed: 24.05.18]
[ii] The high anthocyanin content of fruits, leaves and stems makes them a good source of blue/purple dye.
[iv] For details see: [accessed: 31.05.16]
[v] For details see: [accessed: 30.05.18]

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