Brambles - are they garden plants?

An Orange Fly on Blackberries by Rowena Millar

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-Roving) Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. Despite it's invasive nature, Rowena explores how brambles can be an added benefit to our gardens and shares exactly how this prickly wildflower can help support and protect some of our iconic garden species.

Native brambles (Rubus fruticosus) grow in my garden without invitation, and I have a love/hate relationship with them.

This year, after admiring the beauty of the white or pink flowers during lockdown whilst also cutting and tearing out thorny stems, I have been enjoying the most delicious blackberry, apple and bilberry crumbles ever.

You can see at a glance that this plant is popular with wildlife. Yet here I am deep amongst thorns, hacking down runners that appeared when I wasn’t looking. Not only do these prickly exploratory stems grow at a remarkable speed, they also don’t care what other plant they grow over, across or through, and they take root when they touch the ground.

Invasive bramble in the garden

An invasive runner in the garden, Image by Rowena Millar

So let’s delve deeper into what brambles are and whether it’s a good idea to include them amongst our garden plants.

Blackberries grow almost anywhere, their roots forming networks underground with bunches of stems growing up and out, feeling their way across the countryside, colonising and tangling themselves into dense, prickly thickets.

According to Plantlife, over 400 bramble microspecies have been recorded in Britain, and there certainly seem to be big variations in flower appearance, blossoming and fruiting times, and even the size and taste of the berries (although light, shade and soil may play a part). I have taken photographs of different bramble flowers in my local patch. The buds, flower shape and thorns are clues that brambles belong to the rose family.

Brambles in the garden
 

If you are trying to maintain a nature reserve with a habitat such as lowland heathland, meadow or dunes, bramble can be seen as a thug to clear, even though it’s a native plant. But what about gardens?

Pros

Brambles protect the nesting birds we love to see and hear, including thrushes, robins, long-tailed tits, finches and warblers. They also provide shelter for shy or threatened species found in quiet places, such as the woodcock, which hides at ground level, and dormice, which climb and nest among the stems.

Although blackberry plants swamp other species, they are a part of successional woodland growth, protecting saplings from grazing animals so they can grow up and succeed them. If you have enough land to grow woodland, this might be useful to know.

Bramble flowers are open, prolific and generous suppliers of pollen and nectar for insects – from bees, wasps and hoverflies to beetles and butterflies. Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Comma, Silver-washed Fritillary, Gatekeeper, Ringlet and Small Skipper are among the butterflies I’ve seen amongst bramble.

The berries form an important food for creatures great and small – from foxes, badgers and small mammals like wood mice and rare dormice to birds and insects. A few days ago I noticed a horse delicately picking blackberries with its lips, and dogs do this too.

The leaves are food for wildlife as well. Buff Arches, Peach Blossom and Fox moth (cuckoo food) caterpillars are amongst the many moth larvae that eat them, not to mention many fly and beetle larvae. You will see many spiders on brambles catching flies. I often wonder how they know to make their webs above the juiciest berries.

We can use the youngest leaves in salads, apparently, as well as using the fruits in delicious jams and puddings. Brambles are used in traditional medicines, too.

We can use the whole plant as a protective fence or hedge component to keep large animal and human intruders out.

Cons

Brambles can grow in any soil, and can take over your garden rapidly, straddling paths, ripping skin and clothes, and tripping you up.

They can take water, nutrients and light from other species. Being able to grow in both light and shade gives them an advantage, so they may outcompete saplings even though they offer protection from deer.

Brambles take up a lot of space, so they may not be suitable for small gardens.

People might not like the little grubs (raspberry beetle larvae, I think) and fungus found in and on some fruits. These are just part of nature, and no preventative action is required.

Dead bramble branches with thorns

Dead branches are a thorny problem, Image by Rowena Millar

Thorns of various sizes dig in, break off and can be hard to remove from your skin. Thorns of dead bramble seem particularly nasty to me and damaged the eyes of my previous dog.

So what’s my advice about brambles in the garden?

There is much to admire about brambles – their resilience and the way they bring so much wildlife into the garden. My approach is to allow blackberries to exist in hedges, leaving the shorter flowering and fruiting stems be, but cutting down invasive runners when they start to get out of control at the expense of other plants.

I dig or pull up invasive root balls that form underneath other shrubs, other soft fruit, flowers and veg. If you hold the very bottom, you’ll find no thorns there. A note: watch out that you don’t suddenly fall backwards when pulling hard, as the roots suddenly give way … it happens to me a lot.

I don’t like finding thorns in my compost, and so brambles are a species that I drive to the nearest recycling facility if there is nowhere safe to put them. The thorny stems are manageable if you wear thick gloves, cut them up into short sections and then stuff these bits into strong sacks to take away or to rot down in a corner. I fill a whole dumpy bag with trampled down bramble stems from around the garden, to avoid having to make more than one journey.

There is much to admire about brambles – their resilience and the way they bring so much wildlife into the garden.

When the first berries appear, brambles become a cause for celebration. The lower fruits that I can reach form the basis of fruit spreads, crumbles and even home-made ice cream. The inner and top berries are for the birds, wood mice, voles and insects.

The autumn leaf colour can be spectacular – just what we need to brighten a dull, rainy day.

And here’s a final positive thought: it’s nice to know that we have a native species that’s not actually under threat, and that is of such universal use to wildlife, wherever it grows. Keep an eye on bramble, but enjoy watching the life it brings, too!

More information on wildlife gardening