Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

A very familiar, vigorous and thorny scrambling shrub that produces blackberries.

Common name: bramble, blackberry, European blackberry, black heg, wild blackberry, blegs

Binomial name: Rubus fruticosus agg.

Family: Rosaceae

Taxonomically, Rubus fruticosus is treated as a broad complex or aggregate of several slightly differing species that belong to sections and subsections. Over 300 microspecies have been recognised in the UK. As a result it is variable in leaf shape and plant form.

What does bramble look like?

Overview: bramble has long, thorny and arching stems and can grow up to 2m or more high. It has a very wide ecological tolerance and can grow almost anywhere, but tends to reach maximum growth and diversity on acidic soils. This species spreads by bird-dispersed seeds and by tip-rooting stems.

Leaves: alternate and palmately compound. Each leaf is divided into 3 or 5 serrated, shortly stalked, oval leaflets. Leaves are dark green on top and pale beneath. Leaf stalks and mid-ribs are prickly. 

Flowers: clusters of white or pink flowers appear from late spring to early summer. They are 2-3cm in diameter with five petals and many stamens.

Fruit: the fruit, known as a blackberry, is 1-2cm in length and ripens from green through red, to deep purple and finally black when ripe in late July. The fruit of the bramble is not a true berry - botanically it is termed an aggregate fruit made up of twenty to fifty single-seeded drupelets.

Could be confused with: blackberry is fairly unmistakable, but there are a couple of species that it could be confused with, especially in its unripe form.

Wild raspberry (Rubus idaeus) also produces aggregate fruits, meaning they are composed of many tiny individual fruits or drupelets. They can all be a similar colour at certain times and ripen at similar times of the year. There are some differences to help identification. When a ripe raspberry is picked it is red and there is a hollow within the fruit. When a ripe blackberry is picked it is black and the soft white core remains inside the fruit.

Dewberry (Rubus caesius), another close relative, resemble blackberries but tend to have fewer, larger individual fruits or drupelets. Their fruit surface is waxy rather than shiny and their stems tend to scramble along the ground rather than being tall and arching.

Where to find bramble

Bramble grows almost anywhere throughout the UK. It is common in woodland, hedges, scrub and wasteland. Flowers appear in June-July and the fruit ripens and turns black from late July.

Value to wildlife

Bramble is a food source for honey bees and bumblebees and other wild animals. Leaves are eaten by certain caterpillars and some grazing mammals, especially deer, are also fond of the leaves. Caterpillars of concealer moth have been found feeding inside dead blackberry shoots. When mature, the berries are eaten and their seeds dispersed by several mammals, such as fox and badger and small birds.

Uses and folklore

Bramble is both loved and hated for its thorns and powers of entanglement as well as its delicious fruit and it is deeply embedded in our tradition and folklore.

The pastime of blackberry picking (blackberrying) goes back thousands of years and is still popular in both town and country. Ripe juicy blackberries have a high vitamin C content and can be eaten raw or cooked. They are traditionally used in pies, crumbles (usually paired with apples), wines, jams, jellies and vinegar. Strong ale brewed from blackberries, malt and hops was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bramble has widely been used in traditional medicine. Its leaves are used in the preparation of herbal teas and the root bark and leaves are used medicinally, being strongly astringent with diuretic, healing and detoxifying properties. Gerard's Herbal gives a remedy made from blackberry leaves 'for fastening the teeth back in'. Blackberries are known to have health benefits for women due to their high levels of phytoestrogens.

Blackberry fruits yield a blue dye and a fibre from the stems have been used to make string. Blackberry bushes can prevent soil erosion on infertile, disturbed sites and the ancient Britons used thorny stems as a boundary or barrier in the way modern people use barbed wire.

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