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As sum­mer turns to au­tumn, flow­ers turn to berries: some poi­sonous, some cu­ra­tive, and some ed­i­ble

In this “sea­son of mist and mel­low fruit­ful­ness” (Keats) the au­tum­nal hedgerows are hung with berries “like clus­ters of co­ral beads, as in those fa­bled or­chards where the fruits were jewels…” (Dick­ens). The gar­lands of red berries of Black Bry­ony are some of the bright­est, shin­ing against the with­ered re­mains of the heart-shaped yel­low­ing leaves still cling­ing onto the weak, twist­ing stems. Black Bry­ony is the only mem­ber of the yam fam­ily nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring in Bri­tain and grows from a large, fleshy tu­ber, black on the out­side. Pulped root was used as a poul­tice for bruises. Un­like the trop­i­cal sta­ple food, our na­tive yam is ex­ceed­ingly acrid and, de­spite be­ing used as an old cathar­tic medicine, is very dan­ger­ous if taken in­ter­nally. The berries are equally poi­sonous and may cause sick­ness and paral­y­sis in chil­dren.

Not as wide­spread as Black Bry­ony, and rarely found north of the Mid­lands, is the un­re­lated White Bry­ony – our only wild mem­ber of the cu­cum­ber fam­ily. White Bry­ony climbs us­ing ten­drils and can ex­tend for sev­eral yards amongst the hedgerow shrubs. The five-lobed leaves are vine-shaped and both they and the stems are rough to the touch with short, prickle-like hairs. Au­gus­tus Caesar was said to wear a wreath of Bry­ony dur­ing a thun­der­storm to pro­tect him­self from light­ning. The pea-sized berries, more spher­i­cal and a duller red than those of Black Bry­ony, are even more deadly – just 15 can be fa­tal to a child. Each con­tains three to six grey­ish-yel­low seeds and an un­pleas­ant smelling juice.

“White” Bry­ony has a large, fleshy yel­low­ish-white tu­ber that was used, un­der the name of “Wild Nepit” as a 14th cen­tury an­ti­dote to le­prosy. The roots were of­ten seen sus­pended in herb shops and sold as man­drakes. Un­like the true man­drakes that con­tained hal­lu­cino­genic al­ka­loids and were used in magic rit­ual, the “English man­drake” had to be trimmed to a hu­man form. The French called the root “Devil’s turnip” from its nau­seous and bit­ter taste and dan­ger­ous ac­tion.

Not all of the red berries of the au­tum­nal hedgerow are poi­sonous, but I wouldn’t rec­om­mend eat­ing the haws of hawthorn: they have a slightly sweet creamy-white flesh, but many peo­ple no­tice a very nasty af­ter­taste. They can be made into con­serves or wine, but are com­monly used by herbal­ists to treat car­diac prob­lems.

Mem­bers of the ap­ple sub­tribe of the rose fam­ily, the English hawthorn berries are ac­tu­ally “pomes” con­tain­ing a sin­gle seed. To find a truly ed­i­ble red fruit in the hedgerow you need to turn to the hips of the re­lated Dog Rose. An ex­cel­lent source of Vi­ta­min C, you may have heard sto­ries of peo­ple col­lect­ing rose hips dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. The 17th cen­tury poet Ge­orge Her­bert knew that “A Rose, be­sides his beauty, is a cure”. The flask-shaped scar­let rose hips are, botan­i­cally speak­ing, false fruits: the real fruits are the lit­tle dry hairy ‘ach­enes’ within the cup-shaped re­cep­ta­cle, each of which con­tains one seed. Rose hips may be made into jelly or syrup and, later in the sea­son when soft­ened by frosts, wine.

When pick­ing rose hips you may no­tice un­usual growths on the rose briar where leaf buds have de­vel­oped into moss-like galls. These “Robin’s pin­cush­ions” re­sult from a chem­i­cal im­bal­ance in­duced by the pres­ence within the tis­sue of the lar­vae of a gall wasp. “Robin” is the wood­land sprite, Robin Good­fel­low, of English folk­lore. By Oc­to­ber the lar­vae are fully grown and spend the win­ter in a pre­pu­pal rest­ing state be­fore pu­pat­ing and emerg­ing the fol­low­ing May. And the Robin’s pin­cush­ion is in its full glory with the green fil­a­ments turn­ing via pink to crim­son.

Dried and pow­dered, the galls were used to treat colic, toothache, and as a di­uretic; mixed with honey and ap­plied to the scalp they were thought to pre­vent bald­ness. I think I’ll stick to the hips – or, even bet­ter, leave them all for the birds.

Black Bry­ony

Robin’s pin­cush­ion


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