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Berry good day

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I was busy yesterday trimming back brambles. They are tenacious plants, and fast growers. It seems no sooner have I trimmed them back in one area, that they are wild again in another. I’m most intrigued by the thick, long whips that reach out from the hedge into the garden. These long arms can be almost an inch in diameter, and easily over 9 feet long. As I made my way along the southwestern wall, I was treated with first fruits: an sméar mullaigh (the topmost blackberry). Juicy and delicious! Since I have Dris on my mind (and still need to collect my trimmings out of the garden), I thought I would share some folklore.

In traditional herbal medicine the bramble is ruled by the planet Venus (Friday) and associated with the astrological sign Aries. 20120821-121141.jpgIn Ulster they might be called ‘brammle’, here in Cork ‘blackas’, or generally ‘scaldberries’. It is universally believed that they should NOT be eaten after the feast of Samhain! Reasons for this vary, from the púca spitting or peeing on them, the devil doing mischief as well, or…as in Brittany, à cause des fées (because of fairies).

They were, however, eaten at the Samhain feast in the form of blackberry pie, along with apple cake and hazel nuts (1). In the Scottish Highlands, on the feast of St. Michael, they were made into a cake called Struan Michael, which traditionally included blackberries, bilberries, cranberries, carroway seeds, and wild honey, and was baked over a fire of oak, rowan, bramble, and other “blessed woods” (2).

Brambles do a remarkable thing when they reach out with those long arms; they seek to insert their fingers into the ground and grow anew. This bramble ‘arch’, or ‘double-headed’ bramble, has some curious properties in folklore (3). Here in Ireland, of course, it provided a vehicle for invoking all manner of ‘evil’ spirits: whether you were a farmer wanting to curse your neighbor, gain superior musical ability, or achieve luck with cards – though you may have a high price to pay (your soul!). In England it was said this same “double-headed” bramble could cure many things, from whooping cough and hernia, to boils and rickets. For example, a child with whooping cough could be passed through the ‘arch’ three times before breakfast for nine consecutive days, at sunrise while facing the rising sun, and saying “In bramble, out cough, here I leave the whooping cough.” A Cornish cure for scalds and burns involved gathering nine bramble leaves and putting them in a vessel of clear spring water, with each leaf then passed over the affected area while saying three times: ‘Three came from the east, one with fire and two with frost, out with the fire and in with the frost, in the name of the father, son and holy ghost.’

The naughtier aspects of bramble lore really interest me. It was widely believed that the period when blackberries were ripe was inauspicious; that animals born during that time were likely to be sickly and troublesome, and that many humans were prone to depression. In Scotland it seems bramble had more wholesome associations. It could ward off evil, protect from witchcraft (if woven into a wreath, along with ivy and rowan, and hung above the lintel), and was used in a St. Brigid rite. On the eve of the feast of St Brigid, an image called the dealbh Bride was made out of straw and decorated in her honor. A small white rod called slachtan Bride, or Bride’s Wand, was placed inside the image. This wand was generally made of birch, broom, bramble, white willow, or some other wood considered sacred. I’ve also read that in England, in ancient times, blackberries gathered at the right time of the moon protected against ‘evil runes’.

The flower of the blackberry, here in Ireland, was a symbol of beauty to the ancient poets, and a well-known love ballad has the name Blàith na Sméar, or ‘Flower of the Blackberry’ (4). In the legend of Mad Sweeney, Sweeney is a king who has been driven mad by a curse and taken to living in the wilds. In a well-known poem he describes the trees and plants around him, and usually praises their beauty. However, what he has to say about the the thorny briar shows he is not particularly fond of it:

O briar, little arched one,
thou grantest no fair terms,
thou ceasest not to tear me,
till thou has thy fill of blood.

Bramble’s thorns also feature in a tale called ‘The Death of King Fergus’, when at one point in the story Iubhdan, the king of the leprechauns, recites a poem about the properties of various woods: ‘bending wood the vicious briar, burn it sharp and fresh, cuts and flays the foot, keeps everyone enmeshed.’ A tale from the Lays of Fionn shows a more useful purpose, as the tale relates how the Mainì, the seven sons of Queen Meadhbh, hold a hostile force at bay by erecting a fence of briars and blackthorns until help arrives. Then there is the entertaining story of how Cúchulainn, in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, tricked his opponents into believing he was older (and sporting a beard) so they would fight him, by smearing his lower jaw and chin with blackberry juice.

The Old Irish Brehon Laws on trees and shrubs list bramble as one of the ‘bushes of the wood’. This meant that the unlawful clearing of a whole field of bramble was subject to a fine of one dairt (or a yeear-old heifer) [note: because cattle were currency in Ireland, they were not butchered and only used for meat or leather after they had died of natural causes] under the laws. It also lists blackberry, along with cultivated apples and plums, bilberries, hazelnuts and strawberries, as sweet (cumra) fruits, while other fruits like wild apple, sloe and haws were defined as rough (fiadain).

1. Danaher, K., The Year in Ireland – Irish Calendar Customs.
2. Carmichael, A., Carmina Gadelica Vols 1-5
3. Ó Súilleabhàin, S., Folktales in Ireland.
4. Tóibín, S., Troscàn na mBànta.

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Meadowsweet is in bloom along the hedgerow and it lends a distinctive, clean fragrance to the air. I was out for a run this morning, and deeply appreciative for the tonic of its aroma. In fact, this is probably the one quality we most associate with meadowsweet: its heavy scent. Many of us have heard how meadowsweet was added to the rushes, which were strewn on the floor, to freshen the space (the rushes doing the hard job of insulation, moisture control, and padding). Here in Ireland, it was known as Airgead Luachra, which means Rush Silver… or silver rushes. They are fairly tall plants that bloom in summer and have reddish stems with dark green leaves and distinctive creamy flower heads.

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Now, whether you covered your floor in these pungent flowers might depend on where you lived and what the local folklore was. Generally in Ireland, it was believed the scent was perilous, because it could cause a person to fall into a deep and possibly fatal sleep.(1) Though, in west county Galway it was believed that if a person was pining or wasting away because of interference from *the Good Neighbours* that putting meadowsweet under their bed would ensure a cure by morning. (2)

Meadowsweet had another name in Irish, Crios Conchulainn (Cuchulainn’s belt), but I am not sure why or where this arose. Perhaps connected, is its association, along with watermint and vervain, as being one of three of the most sacred herbs to the druids. (3)

So, on to herbal uses. As I understand it, the english name comes from the Anglo-Saxon meodu-swete (mead-sweetener) and, you guessed it, was used to flavour mead, beer, wine, and probably anything they were making. A wonderful little herbalist named Gerard once said, “the smell thereof makes the heart merrie and joyful and delighteth the senses.” In Ireland it was used to clean milk vessels and was mixed with coperas (ferrous sulphate) to make a black dye. According to another herbalist, K’eogh, a powder made from the roots was effective in preventing diarrhoea and dysentry, and an infusion of the flowers was good for curing fevers. (4) It was also widely used as a cure for colds, sore throats and other pains, no doubt due to its salicylate content, which is similar to aspirin. (In fact, I have heard that the acid was a disinfectant so it not only made rooms smell better but helped the fight against bacteria. Its painkilling and anti-inflammatory uses were beneficial but hard on the stomach, and it was only after it was synthesised that it become an acceptable candidate for mass production and sold in tablet form as ‘aspirin’ – ‘a’ for acetyl and ‘ –spirin’ for Spirea, the original botanical name for Meadowsweet). People in counties Cavan and Sligo reportedly used it for dropsy and kidney trouble, while those in westmeath preferred to use it as a tonic for nerves.

In traditional western herbalism the plant is ruled by Jupiter (Thursday) and is associated with the zodiac sign Pisces.

1. Ui Chonchubhair, M., Flora Chorca Dhuibhne: Aspects of the Flora of Corca Dhuibhne.
2. Vickery, R., A Dictionary of Plant Lore
3. M. Seymour, A Brief History of Thyme
4. Williams, N., Díolaim Luibheanna
5. Allen & Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition

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