Country Sights and Sounds
The last weeks have offered one or two brief windows of sunshine and given us the opportunity to get out to the hills, where we hoped to find a blackberry crop. I don’t know why it should be so, but Tourmakeady always has blackberries when other areas fail, so that is where we went.
And we found a few. The emphasis, though, should be firmly placed on that last word: few. Never have I experienced such a dearth as this, in one of our most prolific and valuable wild crops. Even those that we did manage to find have suffered from the lack of summer heat and could in no way be called sweet. Rather, they are bitter and black-tasting, fit only for jam or for pies, where ample sugar can be added to make up for the lack of natural sweetness.
They are late this year, too, but then again, so is everything else. Our plum tree had a quiet year, bearing only little, and even these fell to the ground unripened a full six weeks after we would normally gather them up. Apples are few (although one neighbour has trees festooned with miniature fruits), and our pears are non-existent. Never mind, next year will bring a bumper crop to make up.
But back to the blackberry bramble. I have in front of me a copy of ‘Gerard’s Herbal’, a book of folk cures and folklore originally compiled in 1597, when Elizabeth I was Queen of Britain and Ireland. Gerard noted that in his day, blackberries were ripe from the end of August into September, and he lived in the sunny south-east of England. In recent years, we have often enjoyed blackberries from the end of July, even in our climatically challenged west of Ireland – perhaps that tells us something of how weather patterns have changed.
John Gerard tended the gardens of a Lord Burghley, who was Queen Elizabeth’s chief adviser, a man who would have helped to shape British foreign policy regarding Ireland. In fact, at the time of late 17th-century rebellion in this country, he urged the queen to give her governors in Ireland ‘.. . absolute authority to do all things by their discretions to pacify the storms, and if Her Majesty were in a ship upon the seas, and tempest should arise she must give authority to the master and pilots to govern the ship and much more, where neither she nor her councillors in England are present, the pilot of the ship of Ireland is not to be restrained but let to his own discretion’.
Perhaps Burghley gathered his thoughts regarding the Irish problem while meandering about his garden, nipping at blackberries with carefully manicured fingers, those same fingers that helped draw lines across a map to make a demarcation for the plantation of Ireland that was underway.
Imagine those poor souls turfed out of their homes and banished from their land to make room for landlords, adventurers and undertakers, of being forced from hearth to bramble, to scour the land for mere berries by which a family might be sustained.
Enough! The bramble plant always had so much more to offer to those who knew it well. Not only the fruits are edible, but the young leaves, too, can be eaten in small quantities, though only while the spines they bear are still soft. Older leaves make an astringent tea which, when taken cold, is most refreshing on a hot day.
Those same leaves contain a high concentration of tannins and enough vitamin C to make chewing them worthwhile. Was it for no reason that my grandmother made us gargle with bramble tea to ward off throat infections? Not at all. She knew well the cures that the countryside offered, and made good use of them too. Perhaps her own grandmother would have taught her how to extract a black dye from young bramble shoots, or how she might treat an upset stomach with a decoction made from the leaves and roots of the plant.
There have been some other, less-practical uses for the bramble. A child with whooping cough could be passed nine times beneath the arch of bramble that was rooted at both ends, something the plant is won’t to do of its own will, and a sickly animal would be treated likewise.
Gerard recommended that the leaves be boiled together with honey and alum, ‘and a little white wine added’ to make ‘a most excellent lotion of washing water’, something both Queen Elizabeth and her man Burghley no doubt appreciated to the full.
Next stop Tourmakeady, for berries and leaves.