I was busy yesterday trimming back brambles. They are tenacious plants, and fast growers. It seems no sooner have I trimmed them back in one area, that they are wild again in another. I’m most intrigued by the thick, long whips that reach out from the hedge into the garden. These long arms can be almost an inch in diameter, and easily over 9 feet long. As I made my way along the southwestern wall, I was treated with first fruits: an sméar mullaigh (the topmost blackberry). Juicy and delicious! Since I have Dris on my mind (and still need to collect my trimmings out of the garden), I thought I would share some folklore.
In traditional herbal medicine the bramble is ruled by the planet Venus (Friday) and associated with the astrological sign Aries. In Ulster they might be called ‘brammle’, here in Cork ‘blackas’, or generally ‘scaldberries’. It is universally believed that they should NOT be eaten after the feast of Samhain! Reasons for this vary, from the púca spitting or peeing on them, the devil doing mischief as well, or…as in Brittany, à cause des fées (because of fairies).
They were, however, eaten at the Samhain feast in the form of blackberry pie, along with apple cake and hazel nuts (1). In the Scottish Highlands, on the feast of St. Michael, they were made into a cake called Struan Michael, which traditionally included blackberries, bilberries, cranberries, carroway seeds, and wild honey, and was baked over a fire of oak, rowan, bramble, and other “blessed woods” (2).
Brambles do a remarkable thing when they reach out with those long arms; they seek to insert their fingers into the ground and grow anew. This bramble ‘arch’, or ‘double-headed’ bramble, has some curious properties in folklore (3). Here in Ireland, of course, it provided a vehicle for invoking all manner of ‘evil’ spirits: whether you were a farmer wanting to curse your neighbor, gain superior musical ability, or achieve luck with cards – though you may have a high price to pay (your soul!). In England it was said this same “double-headed” bramble could cure many things, from whooping cough and hernia, to boils and rickets. For example, a child with whooping cough could be passed through the ‘arch’ three times before breakfast for nine consecutive days, at sunrise while facing the rising sun, and saying “In bramble, out cough, here I leave the whooping cough.” A Cornish cure for scalds and burns involved gathering nine bramble leaves and putting them in a vessel of clear spring water, with each leaf then passed over the affected area while saying three times: ‘Three came from the east, one with fire and two with frost, out with the fire and in with the frost, in the name of the father, son and holy ghost.’
The naughtier aspects of bramble lore really interest me. It was widely believed that the period when blackberries were ripe was inauspicious; that animals born during that time were likely to be sickly and troublesome, and that many humans were prone to depression. In Scotland it seems bramble had more wholesome associations. It could ward off evil, protect from witchcraft (if woven into a wreath, along with ivy and rowan, and hung above the lintel), and was used in a St. Brigid rite. On the eve of the feast of St Brigid, an image called the dealbh Bride was made out of straw and decorated in her honor. A small white rod called slachtan Bride, or Bride’s Wand, was placed inside the image. This wand was generally made of birch, broom, bramble, white willow, or some other wood considered sacred. I’ve also read that in England, in ancient times, blackberries gathered at the right time of the moon protected against ‘evil runes’.
The flower of the blackberry, here in Ireland, was a symbol of beauty to the ancient poets, and a well-known love ballad has the name Blàith na Sméar, or ‘Flower of the Blackberry’ (4). In the legend of Mad Sweeney, Sweeney is a king who has been driven mad by a curse and taken to living in the wilds. In a well-known poem he describes the trees and plants around him, and usually praises their beauty. However, what he has to say about the the thorny briar shows he is not particularly fond of it:
O briar, little arched one,
thou grantest no fair terms,
thou ceasest not to tear me,
till thou has thy fill of blood.
Bramble’s thorns also feature in a tale called ‘The Death of King Fergus’, when at one point in the story Iubhdan, the king of the leprechauns, recites a poem about the properties of various woods: ‘bending wood the vicious briar, burn it sharp and fresh, cuts and flays the foot, keeps everyone enmeshed.’ A tale from the Lays of Fionn shows a more useful purpose, as the tale relates how the Mainì, the seven sons of Queen Meadhbh, hold a hostile force at bay by erecting a fence of briars and blackthorns until help arrives. Then there is the entertaining story of how Cúchulainn, in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, tricked his opponents into believing he was older (and sporting a beard) so they would fight him, by smearing his lower jaw and chin with blackberry juice.
The Old Irish Brehon Laws on trees and shrubs list bramble as one of the ‘bushes of the wood’. This meant that the unlawful clearing of a whole field of bramble was subject to a fine of one dairt (or a yeear-old heifer) [note: because cattle were currency in Ireland, they were not butchered and only used for meat or leather after they had died of natural causes] under the laws. It also lists blackberry, along with cultivated apples and plums, bilberries, hazelnuts and strawberries, as sweet (cumra) fruits, while other fruits like wild apple, sloe and haws were defined as rough (fiadain).
1. Danaher, K., The Year in Ireland – Irish Calendar Customs.
2. Carmichael, A., Carmina Gadelica Vols 1-5
3. Ó Súilleabhàin, S., Folktales in Ireland.
4. Tóibín, S., Troscàn na mBànta.