PIP WEBSTER SEES THE CHANGE FROM HEATWAVES TO BERRY-LADEN HEDGEROWS
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.