Leaves from London plane trees are curling up like brandy snaps on the pavement. This is the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/ Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun’, as Keats wrote.
Last weekend I went home to my parents’ farm in Kent. Thorny and unfriendly-looking hedgerows were jewelled with blackberries, attracting people, birds and a curious spaniel called Mungo (who hates being left out). There’s something for everyone in a blackberry bush. Last year my brother gave all our family hedgerow liqueur for Christmas, my mum made endless crumbles and my dad froze bags of blackberries so he could have them on his porridge through winter.
Blackberries and other hedgerow berries sustain birds like robins, song thrushes and blackbirds over the colder months when the ground is too hard to hunt worms and snails and insects are scarce. Insects, hedgehogs, badgers, mice, squirrels and foxes also feed on them. You know if these garden birds have been snacking on berries as their poo turns purple. In fact there was a whole Facebook page dedicated to taking photos of this but unfortunately the last colourful shit was posted in 2015.
Blackberries also rely on birds to distribute their seeds as they pass through their gut and are dropped miles from the parent plant. According to the RSPB, it’s no coincidence that many young trees grow near fences and posts that birds would have perched on.
Humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Earlier this week a scientist sent me a recipe for 5,000-year-old Neolithic oat flat cakes that included using blackberries, honey and wild chicken eggs. During the English civil war there were temporary truces so soldiers could go and forage blackberries, which were believed to help with dysentry. An eccentric English herbalist called Nicholas Culpeper even boiled blackberry leaves in a lye solution so he could dye his hair black back in the 17th century.
However, these fruits come with a health warning for tiny birds who have been too gluttonous later in the winter months when overripe berries have started fermenting. These birds have the familiar symptoms of falling over and feeling unwell, experts found. One study on waxwings found they had ethanol concentrations as high as 1000 parts per million, meaning they were much too drunk to fly safely.
There are plenty of great spots for blackberry foraging in London. I’ve heard Hamstead heath is very good and I’ve seen some along Regent’s canal. Read this Time Out article to find out more.