Wednesday Weed – Armenian Bramble

Fruit of the Armenian Bramble (Rubus armeniacus) Photo by By Daderot

Dear Readers, when I saw an article headed ‘Beware the Armenian Bramble’ by Roger Morris in my British Wildlife magazine in October, I knew that I would have to do some further investigation. After all, brambles are a tricky bunch at the best of times, with our ‘normal’ blackberry, Rubus fruticosus, having more than 324 microspecies, all clones of one another and extremely local. But this ‘new kid on the block’ is a whole new species, imported originally because of its large, tasty and profuse fruit.

Armenian Bramble is sometimes called Himalayan bramble, though it is actually from Iran and, as its name suggests, Armenia. It is described by Stace and Crawley in ‘Alien Plants’ as ‘very robust, deliciously fruited and wickedly spiny’, and so it appears to be. Morris reports that the canes can extend 20-30 feet from the crown, much further than most of the native microspecies, and that the canes ascend to quite a height before descending vertically to root. The canes can be in excess of 25 mm at their base, and are strongly ribbed and reddish in colour, especially at the base.

Now, I am a great fan of brambles, for all sorts of reasons. They provide cover and food for many species of birds and small mammals. The flowers are a favourite with all kinds of pollinators, and of course the fruit is delicious and free. Morris thinks that while the birds who take blackberries as an autumn treat are the main reason for the spread of this plant, foxes, who seem to love the fruit, might also be doing their bit, especially as the Armenian bramble is often seen along railway embankments and in urban areas. And I remember seeing Canada geese munching on berries of ‘ordinary’ bramble in Walthamstow Wetlands. So, is this bramble really a problem?

It’s certainly become a ‘noxious weed’ in parts of the Pacific Northwest, particularly in British Columbia. It spreads quietly and almost unnoticed, but it is so vigorous that it can easily outcompete other plants, particularly for light and nitrogen. Morris has noticed that it also seems to enrich the soil beneath it: this might sound like a good thing, but many plants depend on nutrient-poor soils in order to survive without being swamped. In a note that will strike terror in the hearts of many of us, Morris mentions that:

Railway embankments once filled with Japanese Knotweed are now a tangle of invading brambles that are every bit as robust and persistent‘.

On the other hand, when Armenian bramble was flailed on Mitcham Common, there were concerns about the impact on the hedgehog, rabbit and fox populations, and local people regretted the loss of the berries, especially as the coming winter is expected to be so financially difficult for so many people.

So, what to do? It’s clear that Armenian bramble can be a problem, and that where it appears it’s easier if it’s tackled quickly, but how many of us could tell an Armenian bramble from a ‘normal’ one until it was too late? And as control seems to involve a lot of digging, cutting, flailing and even spraying, it’s likely that cash-strapped councils and hard-pressed wildlife organisations are going to find it difficult to control. Maybe it will be another of those plants that, except in the most delicate and well-protected of habitats, we will have to live with.

And of course, as it’s Wednesday, it must be time for a poem. How about ‘Blackberry Picking’ by Seamus Heaney? You’re welcome…

for Philip Hobsbaum

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

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