The bram­bles of the Bio­sphere

In the Bras d'or Lake Bio­sphere Re­serve

The Victoria Standard - - Environment - ANNAMARIE HATCHER

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 or check out our Face­book page.

(Rubus al­leghe­nien­sis)

The com­mon black­berry

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