Let bramble ramble on

Outdoor Living

LIFE-SUSTAINING The bramble’s large open flower means almost every insect can feed from it without difficulty.

In the garden
Oliver Whyte

It seems strange to celebrate a dominating and troublesome weed. Bramble seems to appear from nowhere to cause obstruction, hardship and injury to the gardener. Surely all brambles are to be exterminated from spaces where humans occupy?
I have not seen this plant recommended for gardens, when it most definitely should be – at least for the wildlife garden, where the resilient bramble is a champion of life support.    

Soil enhancer
Rubus fruticosus, to give it its scientific name (‘dris’ in Irish), changes the understory of an ecosystem ending the rein of dominant grasses. It is said bramble has about an eight-year dominance period to eventually give way to ascending tree saplings which could not otherwise get past dense grass growth.
Like many rapid growers, once access to light diminishes so too does the bramble era, it seeds stored in the soil seed bank ready to germinate again when needed. This is ecosystem succession – every plant has its time and function and gives way to the next, until the system reaches its peak state, usually oak-dominated temperate rain forest.
After removing many brambles by the root (for honourable reasons), I have noticed how this plant has greatly increased fertility in the soil where it has grown. Bramble decompresses compacted sub soil, as evidenced by its meandering deep roots. It leaves a wonderfully rich soil for subsequent plant benefactors to thrive.

Fuel giver
Bramble flowers, with their pink-tinged white petals, are highly attractive to a significant range of pollinating insects. Almost every other flower is ignored when bramble is in bloom. Insects visiting its flowers for food include bumble, honey and solitary bees, as well as hoverflies, wasps, butterflies and moths. Its large open flower means almost every insect can feed from it without difficulties.
Many insects also nest or reproduce on its leaves and stems. About 240 species of insect feed on bramble making it a top-ranking pollinator-supporting plant. Brambles are the larval food plant of several moth species. Its leaves are also palatable to a variety of herbivores.
Blackberries are one of, if not the most health-beneficial fruit nutritionally, being rich in anthocyanins, polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids and many vitamins and minerals. Load up that freezer in autumn for a year-round supply to reduce the incidence of heart disease, cancer, dementia and general aging.  
The plump blackberry is food for many creatures from moths and slugs to field mice, foxes, badgers, various birds and, of course, humans. It’s a critical fuel for migrating birds, such as warblers, blackbirds and Scandinavian fieldfares. The popularity of the fruit, in addition to the plant’s spreading root system, allows for the bramble to establish in new sites with ease. Seeds are dispersed for thousands of kilometres by migrating birds. (Incredibly, there are more than 350 micro species of bramble plant recorded around the British Isles.)  

Brambles are also important nesting sites for many birds, including robins, wrens, thrushes, finches, warblers, dunnocks (and their ‘guest’ cuckoo chicks) and long-tailed tits. The dense, thorny thickets provide important protection from predation in addition to insect food. Moreover, areas devoid of bramble thickets are very unlikely to host hedgehogs, as the protection of the briar thicket, particularly during hibernation, is essential. Entire ecosystems exist within these ‘messy’ mini woodlands.
A sacred plant of the Druids, bramble was said to protect the faery realm. Its value as a food crop earned it a place in the Brehon Laws as a protected ‘bush of the wood’. Indeed, the unlawful clearing of a field of bramble was subject to the fine of one heifer.  

Let’s recalibrate
Bramble is one of the most important ecosystem plants supporting disproportionally high levels of life. Recent recordings report that we now have more non-native plants than native plants in Ireland, which is causing catastrophic damage to our ecosystems.
We need to now recalibrate our judgement and animosity to many of our most essential life-supporting ‘weeds’, including the thorny bramble. It is without doubt a must-have plant of the wildlife garden.  

Oliver Whyte Jnr’s garden, Coill an Chúir at Sandyhill, Westport, is on the Clew Bay Garden Trail – a chain of beautiful and unique private gardens that open to the public during the summer to raise funds for charity (see www.clewbaygardentrail.ie for more).