Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
When I was growing up in East London, we would go blackberrying every year. We would jump into our Ford Popular and head for Loughton, where there were areas on the edge of Epping Forest that were head-high with brambles. We would take plastic boxes and fill them to the brim with blackberries, which would be turned into pies and crumbles and jam. Sometimes, they would be mixed with apples, but often they’d be eaten on their own, heated with a little sugar and gobbled up with vanilla icecream.
In my remembrance, it was always hot, and although we’d get scratched it was worth it to savour those berries, slightly warmed from the sun. Juice would stain our hands and our clothes, but for a few hours we were getting food for free, just a couple of miles from where we lived. The berries always tasted better than anything that you could buy.
It was important to pick the right berries – only the fattest, blackest ones were ready to eat. The others were left so that other people could pick them when they were ripe. People took what they needed, and no more, and such was nature’s abundance that there always seemed to be enough. But it didn’t do to be tardy – the later berries were less juicy, more sour than the earlier fruit. Also, as the season moves on the fruit are more likely to be afflicted by mildew and other diseases which render them inedible. It was said that the devil pissed on the blackberries on Michaelmas Night (11th October), and so the season was, by then, effectively over.
Last week, I decided to notice blackberries in my walks around East Finchley, and was surprised by how many there were. There is a great stand dangling onto the High Road next the Amazing Grates fireplace shop, and indeed there is a spikey devil’s fishing-rod of bramble hanging over my back fence, bearing a dozen blackberries which I intend to eat before I cut the plant back.
The thorns of the Bramble are particularly ferocious, but this is not surprising – the plant is a member of the rose family, and what is a rose without a thorn? You can see the family resemblance when the flowers are in bloom – those open-faced, blush-white blossoms are typical of the wild rose, and are always thronged with bumblebees and honeybees and all manner of other pollinators.Although many foresters hate brambles, and grub them up wherever they appear, others are more generous. They realise that the brambles often protect new saplings from the depredations of deer, and help to keep dogs and walkers away from particular areas of the forest. Furthermore, the inpenetrable thickets protect small, vulnerable animals, and the fruit provides food not just for human foragers, but for mice, voles and birds as well.
We have been eating blackberries for a long time – the stomach contents of a neolithic man found in 1911 contained blackberry pips. In the past few decades, though, Londoners seem to have moved away from foraging, preferring to buy larger but distinctly inferior blackberries from Waitrose. So I was delighted to see a lady with the familiar plastic box full of blackberries walking through Coldfall Wood with her children last week. She looked at me a little sheepishly, as if afraid that I would berate her for picking the fruit, but instead I commended her good sense, and told her that I would be doing the same very shortly. What better way to notice the seasons, to get to know the neighbourhood ecology and to understand the true meaning of harvest than to pick some of your own food?