We’ve all of us at sometime been told not to eat blackberries picked from the roadside as they have lead on them from car exhausts. This seems like a straight forward explanation for a rather minor modern day taboo.
However, a quick look at some folkloric wisdom reveals a number of old rules about picking and eating blackberries, which presumably predate the combustion engine.
It seems that there is a general taboo against eating blackberries in the ‘Celtic’ lands: In Ireland and Cornwall they are said to belong to the fairy folk and picking them amounts to theft; in Brittany (and most of France) they were said to belong to the devil.
Other rural lore claims that the fruits become inedible after St. Michaels Day (29th September) as the devil spits or pisses on them at this time. It is the angel Michael who was said to have expelled Lucifer from heaven, so its appropriate that the devil would want to take revenge on the day dedicated to Michael. We also find claims that the devil’s fall to earth was broken by a patch of brambles, and this is why he despises the fruit so much. The emphasis on christian saints and angels suggest that the wisdom, in its present form, is not pre-christian.
And yet, the old wives’ tales of the devil pissing on brambles may indeed have some basis in the natural world. The fruits on blackberry canes ripen from the lowest to the top. The lowest, first fruits being the sweetest and juiciest, the later, higher berries at the far end of the cane are tougher, more sour and are best cooked before eating. The bitter, tougher fruits would be the ones ripening in late September and October, around Michaelmas, in fact.
Interestingly, one written source quotes 11th October (‘old St. Michael’s Day’ ) as the day on which the fruit is spoiled, suggesting that the taboo predated the implementing of the Gregorian calendar, which was 1752 in Britain, and 1582 in Europe. So the lore has at least a few hundred years head-start on the car-exhaust theory, even in Britain.
All this spitting, pissing and devilry apart, there may be sound ecological reasons for shunning blackberries in late autumn, for the benefit of local wildlife. Blackberries begin to fruit in September and continue well into October, making them one of the last wild fruits before the onset of winter, and therefore a valuable food source for birds and small mammals fattening up for the freeze out. Additionally, bramble hedgerows offer shelter and hibernation space for wildlife, the prickly canes providing a degree of security and safety.
Unless the humans come trampling all over picking all the blackberries, that is…
Marion Davies –‘The Magical Lore of Herbs’ pub. Capall Bann
Anna Franklin & Susan Lavender –‘Herbcraft’ pub. Capall Bann
Richard Maybe –‘Food For Free’ pub. Collins
Ron Wilson –‘Gardening For Wildlife’ pub. Capall Bann
A Reprise of Blackberries – blog post