Notes from the Apothecary: Blackberry
The humble bramble or blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) is a common sight in British and Irish hedgerows and wild places. Blackberries are also found all over the United States, and may also be called caneberries.
Blackberries grow on thick, fast-growing branches covered in thorns, making picking the fruit perilous – use gloves! Each berry is a collection of tiny balls called a drupe, and the taste ranges from sweet to mouth-shrivelling and sour if you pick the tiny, hard ones. In the woods near my house, once you venture away from the paths, the spiky branches trail riotously between tree trunks, making it impossible to create new paths – nature’s guardians, almost. They are one of my favourite signs of summer, and a perfect harvest for Lammas or Lúnasa (Lughnasadh).
The Kitchen Garden
Blackberries are a summer fruit, just starting to fatten and darken as we head into August. The blackberry is a powerhouse of culinary creativity, lending its sweetness to puddings, crumbles, jams, jellies, wines, liqueurs, spirits, salads, and as a topping for many other dishes. When picking, we always take the largest, sweetest ones from the end of the spiky branches leaving the smaller berries for the sparrows, pigeons and finches that flutter in and out of the nearby hawthorn and other hedgerow trees. That way, we ensure the birds stay well fed and they in turn spread the seeds around so there are even more blackberries next year.
Blackberries can be eaten fresh, stewed, or even thrown into pancakes as a sharper alternative to blueberries. Although they are sometimes seen as a weed because of how fast they spread, we always allow some bramble to thrive in the garden as the flowers attract any number of bees and butterflies. You can also freeze blackberries and use them at any time of the year.
Blackberries are rich in vitamin C, which aids in cell regeneration and boosts the immune system. Modern research by Ohio State University indicates that blackberries could, potentially, aid in the fight against cancer thanks to high levels of antioxidants plus the ability to help shut down inflammatory response.
Mrs Grieve tells us, in her Modern Herbal, that the Ancient Greeks used blackberries for gout. Historically it’s also been used for loose bowels, and some local British folklore states that walking under a bramble arch with a baby seven times could cure their whooping cough.
The Witch’s Kitchen
I’m always baffled by anyone who lives within ten miles of me who buys blackberries. They are one of the most prolific and easy to obtain fruits in this area; even more so than apples, and there are plenty of those. Ten yards from the back of my house I picked enough blackberries a few years back to make six bottles of beautiful, velvety blackberry wine and two small jars of sweet, rich jam.
In the absence of grapes thanks to our cooler climate in the U.K., the bramble becomes our local fruit of decadence: rich, black juice dripping down our chins as we are awed by the sheer abundance of life-giving fruit. By Lughnasadh only the first few blackberries have made an appearance, making them all the more special; a real treat. Share the glossy goodness with your nearest and dearest, and save just a few for your magical needs.
The blackberry is the deep purple of spirit and balance, making it a perfect offering for the centre of any altar. It is also the almost black of mystery, introspection and the dark or new moon. Blackberries may grace an offering bowl for Hekate’s summer Deipnons; the dark moon festivals honouring of the goddess of the crossroads. A crushed blackberry can be used to mark a magical sigil onto paper or cloth, imbuing the character with mystery and a link to the earth, and the heat and transformative nature of summer. The number of blackberries at the start of the harvest season is supposed to determine how good the overall grain harvest will be. Though this folklore can’t be true in every climate, it certainly holds that if there are very few berries in the hedgerows, it has probably been a bit dry, so you may want to water or feed your gardens more.
The very first blackberries you see should be left for the Good Neighbours – any fair folk that may reside in your area. Manx folklore states that anyone who takes the first blackberries will find the later harvest full of insect grubs.
For Lugh, at Lughnasadh, offerings of luscious fruits show him you are happy to give a portion of your first harvest back to the earth. You are saying, in equal parts, ‘I have enough’ and ‘I am grateful’. Lugh is both the heat of the summer sun and the flash of lightning in the summer storm: the combined elements needed for a good harvest. By honouring Lugh, you accept that you must find balance within yourself. You must find the joy in both the sunny day and the brewing rain and walk the path between. There you will find true magic, intense mystery; fruits more delicious than any that ever grew in any earthly hedgerow.
Home and Hearth
If you can collect blackberries or other summer fruits, have a go at making jam or jelly. Dedicate your culinary craft to the deity or being of your choice, and leave a little for them on their sacred space. Share your creation with your loved ones at the harvest festival.
Plant a blackberry in a small pot, thinking all the while about something you want to come to fruition between now and Samhain. Although Lughnasadh or Lammas is the time of the first harvest festival, it is also a time for sowing those crops that will flourish throughout autumn and even early winter, climate-dependant. Think of your goals like those crops. What you plant now can be nourished throughout summer and through the coming Autumn Equinox, an ideal time to reflect and take stock of where you are and where you want to be. Plant your berry, keep it moist but not overly wet. When it sprouts, wait until you have at least four good sized leaves before planting into a larger pot. Be aware that brambles (blackberry plants) spready wildly, so keep your pot separate from the rest of your yard/garden unless you want prickly branches everywhere by next year! Nourish yourself as you look after your bramble, and take the steps you need to bring your goals to life.
I Never Knew…
During the American Civil war, truces were called so that soldiers could pick blackberries, as the fruit were one of the remedies for dysentery which plagued both the Union and Confederate soldiers.
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist and content creator. She’s a nature-based witch, obsessed with Irish and British Paganism and Folklore, plus she’s a massive plant nerd. She’s also a long-time Hekate devotee and a newbie Lokean. She works extensively with the UK Pagan Federation, including editing their bi-annual children’s magazine. Mabh is a passionate environmentalist and an advocate for inclusiveness and positive social transformation.
Mabh is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors, Pagan Portals – Celtic Witchcraft: Modern Witchcraft Meets Celtic Ways, and most recently, Practically Pagan: An Alternative Guide to Planet Friendly Living. Search “Mabh Savage” on Spotify and @Mabherick on all socials.