The brambles of the Biosphere
In the Bras d'or Lake Biosphere Reserve
In the Mi’kmaw language, the August moon time is Kisikewiku’s (berry ripening time) - a time when harvest of many types of berries dominates activities in the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere. My favourites are the raspberries and blackberries.
Raspberries (Mi’kmaw: klitaq) and blackberries (Mi’kmaw: ajioqjmink) come from plants commonly known as ‘brambles’ (Mi’kmaw: ko’qimin). These berry-producing thorny plants are both in the Rose family, however, their family histories and relationships are complicated. Brambles are all first cousins, in the genus Rubus (Latin for ‘bramble or prickly shrub’), however, there are around 200 species of Rubus which can interbreed and hybridize or even produce seeds without being fertilized. Brambles come from rootstock that is perennial. Biennial stems grow from these perennial roots in most of the Rubus species. In typical biennial fashion, the first year stems do not branch or flower, but flowers and berries are produced during the second year.
So, if you come across a patch of brambles, how do you know what you have? For this discussion, it is useful to describe several of our common species using their Latin (or scientific) names. Some of these descriptive names are quite amusing and informative. The red raspberry, common throughout Nova Scotia, is Rubus idaeus. The species name is derived from Mt. Ida in Greece because it is believed that raspberries were first discovered there. The wild raspberry found all across Canada is a subspecies (var strigosus) of this European variety and is believed to have evolved from plants or seeds brought by the first peoples who came across the Bering Strait. Imagine that early journey from Mt. Ida! How would they be carrying their raspberries? Interestingly, ‘strigosus’ means skinny or straggly. Rubus idaeus is the source of most of the cultivated red and amber raspberries that produce the popular berries. In addition to the tasty fruit, the roots are used as medicine to treat coughs, diarrhea and the pains of childbirth. The highly astringent leaves are used for bowel and urinary tract complaints. Who knew that the raspberry was such a valuable and versatile plant?
In the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere you may find dwarf, trailing raspberries forming dense mats on the ground. This is not an unhealthy-looking common raspberry plant, but a first cousin. The dwarf raspberry’s Latin name (Rubus pubescens) means ‘hairy’. You may find it in sunny areas and the fruit is very tasty!
To confuse you further, there is another trailing variety of Rubus called ‘hispidus’ which means rough, shaggy and bristly. Common in central Nova Scotia, but rare in the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere, the swamp dewberry has raspberry-like fruit that are quite sour. It is a medicinal plant and a decoction of the roots is reported to treat coughs, fever, diarrhea and consumption. Now that is a versatile medicinal plant!
The ‘Blanchard’s Dewberry’ (Rubus recurvacaulis) is a larger, more appealing dewberry fruit that looks a bit like a blackberry. It is commonly found in the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere around lakeshores and the long trailing canes tend to form mounds. Its species name describes the dramatic way in which the canes arch backwards.
That bramble thicket that you have come across may also be common blackberries, which yield mature fruit a bit later in the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere than the common raspberry. What distinguishes the blackberry from its raspberry cousins is whether or not the stem "picks with" (stays with) the fruit. Stems stay with blackberry fruit whereas the stem remains on a raspberry plant, leaving a hollow core in its fruit. Blackberries also are in the genus Rubus and, like raspberries, there are several species in the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere to intrigue and confuse the aspiring botanist.
The common blackberry that produces that wonderful fruit and tears up your limbs as you attempt to pick it is Rubus allegheniensis. The species name refers to the Allegheny Mountains in the United States where the plant was first described. The common blackberry is usually found around forest margins in the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere. If you plan to spend time blackberry-picking in the Biosphere, you may end up sampling the common, smooth or Pennsylvanian blackberry. Who knew that there were so many species of blackberries in the Biosphere? The smooth blackberry is also called the Canadian blackberry, as indicated by its species name, canadensis. It is very similar to the common blackberry with fruit that doesn’t disappoint. It has a similar growth habit and habitat, but can be distinguished by its smooth stems and its leaves, which lack the hairy appearance on the lower surface. Scarcely distinguishable from the Canadian blackberry is the Pennsylvanian blackberry (Rubus pensilvanicus). It is found in the same habitats but maintains less hairy leaves than the common blackberry. For berry pickers, I suggest you just ‘go for it’ as the berries of these three species are equally delicious.
Common, Canadian and Pensylvanian blackberry thickets are important components of the Biosphere ecosystem because they provide habitat for many small animals. In the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere you will find dense thickets of brambles in areas where a major disturbance has damaged habitat. These disturbances include fires and logging. Brambles are considered to be primary successional colonizers. They provide protected areas for new tree seedlings to become established, with thorny canes providing an effective barrier against hungry herbivores. In a way, you can imagine that blackberry thickets could influence the species mix of mature trees in the Acadian forest.
Have you gained new respect for the brambles which produce food and medicine for us as well as habitat for some of our more valuable tree seedlings?
Dr. Annamarie Hatcher is a consulting ecologist and a board member of the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association. She would like to thank Tom Johnson for gently leading her into the Mi’kmaw language. Information for this column was obtained from the bibles (Moerman, D.E., 1998. Native American Ethnobotany, Timber Press, Portland, 927 pages) and (Zinc, M., 1998. Roland’s Flora of Nova Scotia, Nimbus, 1297 pages). For more information about the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association, please visit http://blbra.ca/ or check out our Facebook page.
The common blackberry