Monday, November 26, 2012

Very Berry

A recent visit to Fowlmead Country Park provided wonderful autumnal colours and plenty of food for birds. The plantings of berry-bearing native shrubs look very good and well thought out.

Common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is steeped in folklore and superstition. It graces hedgerows in spring with its creamy-white mayflower and at the year's end the deep red berries glow in the autumnal sunshine. The fruits, are called haws, from the Anglo Saxon haga, meaning hedge or enclosed land. Its botanical name Crataegus is from the Greek kratos, meaning hard.

Common hawthorn was widely planted in 18th century enclosure hedges. Waxwings, redwings, fieldfares, thrushes, blackbirds all love it - so keep an eye out for colourful migrants.

Hawthorn is used widely in western herbal medicine. There's some evidence it's effective in some stages of congestive heart failure. Clearly not a condition to self-medicate!

Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) has startling orange berries thickly clustered on bare branches. The etymology of the botanical name is somewhat obscure; Hippophae is derived from hippos, the Greek for horse. There are two distinct possibilities for the meaning in the literature; shining horse (from the story that branches of sea-buckthorn were added to horse's fodder to give them shiny coats) or horse killer (from a name given by Theophrastus to a spiny shrub, which may or may not have been sea buckthorn). There's also a link to the legend of Pegasus; he allegedly favoured sea buckthorn above all other bushes!

Sea buckthorn berries are numerous and it's curious that they're not much used in the UK. Perhaps their preferred habitat in remote dune areas, not hedgerows, made them less accessible to people. Or maybe those thorns... Another name for the plant is sandthorn. I've never tasted the berries but they are described as 'tart'. I recall watching Ray Mears on Wild Food, stripping the berries with gusto using an ingenious homemade comb contraption (the thorns are a nuisance for sensitive hands) and juicing them. He didn't seem too impressed after all that effort and I've not been tempted to try them. However, in Europe it's sold as a fruit juice, so I'll look out for it next time I'm over in France.

Sea buckthorn tea (thé d'argousier) was actually on the breakfast table at a lovely B&B we stayed at near Crécy earlier this year, and it was delicious (as was the caramel spread!). It's made from the leaves and small twigs.

Wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare) is our only native privet and more often seen in chalky areas. The Elizabethans used it for hedging but it's been superseded by the Japanese import, L.ovalifolium. The springtime clusters of white flowers are honey fragranced and seem to be popular with bees. The tiny black berries are poisonous to humans. In fact the whole plant is not only toxic but can cause contact dermatitis. If ingested the berries are highly irritant. This doesn't seem to stop blackbirds gobbling them up wholesale.

Another good reason to grow privet is that it's the food plant (along with ash (hmm) and lilac) of the glorious privet hawkmoth (Sphinx ligustri).

Privet hawkmoth (Sphinx ligustri) Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Hamon
Wikimedia used under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 licence.

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) is a native shrub. It's not a rose, and is more closely related to elder. The common name Guelder comes from the cultivated variety first grown in the province of Gelderland in Holland. Viburnum is from the Latin, to braid and opulus derived from Latin for maple (the leaves resemble maple)

In herbal medicine guelder rose is known as crampbark. The bark was (and still is) used for nervous complaints, cramps and seizures. However, this use lacks a robust evidence base. (Crampbark is also the name for the American black haw (Viburnum prunifolium), also used in herbal medicine).

In America Viburnum opulus (var. americana) berries are called high bush cranberries. This is a misnomer as the only similarity is the colour. I've never tried or been tempted to make a jelly from them, and the berries are toxic raw.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa ) is widely planted in hedgerows. Its white flowers are seen early in spring. Prunus spinosa means spiny plum and the plant is our native scrubby relative of the cultivated Prunus domestica. Its another bush with vicious thorns.

Blackthorn berries, sloes, are deep dark purple and look like wee plums. The dusty look is caused by pruinesence, a waxy coating that protects the fruit from water loss and wetting. Sloes are wicked sharp but make the richly coloured sloe gin (although I prefer sloe vodka), usually picked after bletting by the first frosts (one can simulate this by freezing fruits picked earlier). Sloe is from the Old English, slah, which sounds to me like the sound one might make when eating one of the highly astringent fruits. Ötzi, the 5,300 year old mummy found frozen in the Alps, had sloes stones in his stomach.

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) is known as an inconsistent fruiter, but this year the bushes at Fowlmead were overburdened with coral-pink fruit. Spindle is named for the use of its wood for spindles and other pointy things; skewers, knitting needles, toothpicks and the like. Another name is prickwood. It's a small tree and thus very manageable and decorative in the garden.

Spindle is said to make very fine quality charcoal for artists. Blogger Days on the Claise writes that the French for a charcoal sketch is dessin au fusain. Fusain is also French for spindle, and a generic term for artist's charcoal (even though artist's charcoal is more commonly made from willow). .

The ripe pink fruits really pretty and are four-lobed.

They split open to reveal clashing bright orange seeds.

The fruits look toxic and are purgative if taken internally. The whole plant is toxic to humans but the fruits are enjoyed by birds. According to Gabrielle Hatfield (2004) the berries have been used topically for headlice. The fruits were also once baked and powdered, and used to treat cattle for mange.

Looking at the wild berry harvest locally, the sloe crop is poor, but spindle and hawthorn seem to be pretty abundant (until stripped by hungry hoards of feathered berry snatchers).

The best book on British berries (and my own favourite) is David Lang's The Complete Books of British Berries, 1987, Kenilworth Press. Well worth getting if you see one secondhand. He's not only a naturalist and photographer, but also a qualified veterinary surgeon and his scientific approach gives the book considerable gravitas.

Gabrielle Hatfield (2004) ABC-CLIO Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions

BTO are currently running a Birds & Garden Berries Study. They've produced an excellent online guide (pdf) to British berries available here.