Take on Nature: The blackberry sprite – watch out, bogles about

Blackberries, Sméara dubha in Irish, are at their best from mid-August to mid-September
Stephen Colton

THE continuous warble of fluty notes from the robin, gathering swallows and the swollen fruits of our hedgerows all hint at nature's gradual transition from summer to autumn. The coming weeks will carry us further along this path as days shorten and crisper temperatures change the soft green palette of summer foliage into the vivid red, orange and golden hues of autumn.

One of the most obvious of those ripening fruits is the Blackberry, "a glossy purple clot", as Seamus Heaney describes it in Blackberry-Picking. It is the fruit of the ‘bramble' or more specifically the blackberry bush, Rubus fruticosus, a shrub with long, thorny, arching shoots which root easily and tangle amongst hedges and shrubs.

These hardy, stubborn brambles which grow plump fruits, thrive anywhere from dense woodlands to wasted shrubbery, making the blackberry extremely common.

Easily recognised and simple to pluck, blackberries are one of our most popular free foods and many, like generations before, still forage for them by our roadsides. Records from the American Civil War reveal how blackberry tea was used to cure dysentery and that temporary truces were declared throughout the conflict to allow both Union and Confederate soldiers to forage for berries, often from the same bush at the same time.

Blackberries, Sméara dubha in Irish, are at their best from mid-August to mid-September, something Heaney again alludes to when writing, "Late August, given heavy rain and sun/ For a full week, the blackberries would ripen."

Much folklore surrounds the timing of blackberry picking in Ireland, as people believed that they became inedible after St Michael's Day, September 29 (or October 11 as old Michaelmas Day) as this was the day the devil was cast out of heaven only to land on a bramble bush.

Cursing the thorns which injured him, he is said to have contaminated the fruits by spitting or urinating on them.

A variation on the tale blames the ‘pooka' or ‘púca na sméar', the ‘blackberry sprite' (Dineen, 1927) for rendering them unpalatable at this time. In Scottish mythology, it is the ‘bogle' who spits on the bramble berries to discourage their eating. Like the Irish púca, a bogle is that, "freakish spirit, who delights rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them" (George Douglas, 1901; Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales).

In Popular Tales of the West Highlands, John Francis Campbell tells the story of a young baron of the Badenoch district of Scotland stumbling across a bogle with a red hand, dripping with bramble juice. The baron reports the bogle for stealing fruit, and the creature is punished. After receiving his punishment, the bogle, in his rage, returns to the brambles and defiles them.

In Greek mythology, Bellerophon, who dared to ride the winged horse Pegasus, was cast from the sky, into a bramble bush, where he was blinded by its thorns.

Our native bramble, or Dris in Irish, along with its fruits has traditionally been used for healing in Ireland. Passing a child through an arch of bramble would cure its whooping cough while its leaves were used to treat colds, fevers and diarrhoea.

Blackberries have been used for centuries to make jams, preserves, chutney and to flavour pies, "Like thickened wine: Leaving stains upon the tongue", as Heaney says.

The wanton cutting of bramble was punishable by fine according to ancient Brehon Laws, while its stems were traditionally used to make tobacco pipes and to pack sliotars or hurley balls. A remarkable plant.

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