project reflections #19

Briar and Bracken

On the clearest day in December I visited the long-abandoned burial grounds of Wardsend. These range across a hillside that faces roughly south west, somewhat towards the setting winter sun as it falls below the occupations on the valley ridge of Upperthorpe. About the many forgotten memorials, each delicately graven with the names of the dead, I observed an abundance of the growth-fronds of common bracken Pteridium aquilinum – now brown, friable and themselves long dead after the summer blaze of green – and also many dormant briars or brambles of the blackberry Rubus fruticosus

 Part I: Briar or Bramble?

Briar or brier is a common name for a number of unrelated thicket-forming thorny plants, including species in the Rubus genera. Rubus is a large genus of flowering plants in the rose family, Rosaceae. Blackberries  are a common, widely distributed member of the genus. Blackberries, as well as various other Rubus species with mounding or rambling growth habits, are often called brambles. The genus Rubus is believed to have existed since at least 23.7 to 36.6 million years ago.

Most of the Rubus briars have woody stems with prickles like roses; spines, bristles, and gland-tipped hairs are also common in the genus. The Rubus fruit is an aggregate of small units known as drupelets. In blackberries the flower receptacle is elongate and part of the ripe fruit, making the blackberry an aggregate-accessory fruit.

The generic name means blackberry in Latin and is derived from the word ruber, meaning “red”.

The  word bramble comes from Germanic bram-bezi, whence also German Brombeere , Dutch Braam and French framboise. In popular UK usage the term primarily refers to the blackberry bush; in Scotland and the north of England it refers to both the blackberry bush and its fruits.

The scientific study of brambles is known as batology.

Bramble bushes have a distinctive growth form. They send up long, arching canes that do not flower or set fruit until the second year of growth. Many types of brambles bear edible fruit, and many have recurved thorns that dig into clothing and flesh when the victim tries to pull away from them. Some types also have hair-like thorns. Brambles usually have trifoliate or palmately-compound leaves.

One cup of blackberries contains approximately 0.029 mg of thiamine (vitamin B1).

Part II: Bracken

Pteridium aquilinum (Bracken or Common Bracken) is one of several species of large, coarse ferns of the genus Pteridium.

Ferns (Pteridophyta) are vascular plants that have alternating generations: large plants that produce spores and small plants that produce sex cells (eggs and sperm). Brackens are in the family Dennstaedtiaceae, which are noted for their large, highly divided leaves. Brackens are cosmopolitan, being found on all continents except Antarctica and in all environments except deserts. The genus probably has the widest distribution of any fern genus in the world. In the past, the genus was commonly treated as having only one species, Pteridium aquilinum, but the recent trend is to subdivide it into about ten species.

The word bracken is of Old Norse origin, related to the Swedish word bräken, meaning fern.

Evolutionarily, bracken may be considered to be one of the most successful ferns. It is also one of the oldest, with fossil records stretching back over 55 million years. The plant sends up large, triangular fronds from a wide-creeping underground rootstock, and may form dense thickets. This rootstock may travel a metre or more underground between fronds. The fronds may grow up to 2.5 m (8 ft) long – or longer with support, but typically are in the range of 0.6–2 m (2–6 feet) high. In cold environments bracken is winter-deciduous, requires well-drained soil, and is generally found growing on the sides of hills. The spores used in reproduction are produced on the underside edges of the leaf in structures called sori. The linear pattern of these sori is different from other ferns which are circular and located towards the centre. Dead bracken provides a warm microclimate for development of the immature stages.

Pteridium aquilinum is the most common species. It has caused such a problem of invading pastureland that at one time the British government instigated an eradication programme. Special filters have been used on some British water supplies to filter out the bracken spores.

Bracken fronds contain a variety of poisons: ptaquiloside or PTQ, pterosins and some metabolites. The plant is carcinogenic to animals such as mice, rats, horses and cattle when ingested, although they will usually avoid eating it unless nothing else is available. The spores have also been implicated as a carcinogen; Danish scientist Lars Holm Rasmussen released a study in 2004 showing that the carcinogenic compound in bracken, ptaquiloside or PTQ, can leach from the plant into the water supply, which may explain an increase in the incidence of gastric and oesophageal cancers in bracken-rich areas.

Uncooked bracken also contains the enzyme thiaminase which destroys thiamine (vitamin B1).

Paul Evans, 5 January 2012

project reflections #18 (Wardsend Cemetery, Sheffield, 5 January 2012)

Wardsend was opened in the early 1850s, when a nearby churchyard became full. The name Wardsend is a corruption of “Worldsend”, which is reputed to be the site of the second coming of Christ, and is listed in a land agreement in 1161.

The site of the cemetery (see map opposite) occupies 5.5 acres and once included a small chapel, office and a sexton’s house. The railway line runs through the cemetery, dividing it into a western half which is wooded and an eastern half which is open (see pictures).

The first burial was in 1857 and was of Mary Ann Marsden aged 2 years. By tradition the first body was always given the title of “Guardian of the Cemetery”. By 1900 the number of burials totalled 20,000 and the site was extended.

P. Quincey, Burngreave Messenger

project reflections #16 (Wardsend Cemetery, Sheffield, 5 January 2012)

There used to be a chapel and a sexton’s cottage at Wardsend Cemetery. The cottage was burned down by rioters on 3rd June 1862 when a crowd tried to get hold of a gravedigger suspected of selling bodies for dissection. The gravedigger was later sentenced to 3 months – not for selling bodies but for selling the same graves over and over.

Martin Elms

project reflections #14

Fireweed

The branches come out of the ground in great numbers, growing, to the height of sixe foote, garnished with brave flowers of great beautie, consisting of fower leaves a piece, of an orient purple colour. The cod is long … and full of downie matter, which flieth away with the winde when the cod is opened.

John Gerard, The Herball, 1597

Rosebay Willowherb, or Fireweed as it is know in North America, is both abundant and widely distributed throughout the Upperthorpe and Netherthorpe edgelands.

It has, to my mind, the great distinction of two quite separate yet equally spectacular stages in its reproductive cycle. The first occurs with the flowering of the vivid magenta spears – often seen waving in stark chromatic contrast against the blue of the summer sky. The second stage occurs at the end of the ripening within the seed pods of the delicate and silk-like seeds – on the warmest days the rising air currents will be alive with these delightful, dancing, graceful strands as they make their escape …

Epilobium angustifolium, commonly known as Fireweed, or Rosebay Willowherb, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the willowherb family Onagraceae. It is native throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere, including large parts of the boreal forests. The species name angustifolium is a portmanteau of the Latin words angusti meaning ‘narrow’, and folium meaning ‘leaf’.

Rosebay Willowherb is often abundant in wet calcareous to slightly acidic soils in open fields, pastures, and particularly burned-over lands; the name Fireweed derives from the species’ abundance as a coloniser on burnt sites after forest fires. Its tendency to quickly colonise open areas with little competition makes it a clear example of a pioneer species. These plants grow and flower as long as there is open space and plenty of light; as trees and brush grow larger the plants die out, but the seeds remain viable in the soil seed bank for many years – and when a new conflagration or other disturbance occurs that opens up the ground to light again the seeds germinate. Some areas with heavy seed counts in the soil can, after fire, be covered with pure dense stands of this species and when in flower the landscape is turned into fields of colour.

In Britain the plant was considered a rare species in the 18th century, and one confined to a few locations with damp, gravelly soils. It was sometimes mis-identified as Great Hairy Willowherb in contemporary floras. The plant’s rise from local rarity to widespread weed seems to have occurred at the same time as the expansion of the railway network, and the associated soil disturbance.

Rosebay Willowherb became locally known as bombweed due to its rapid colonisation of bomb craters in the Second World War.

The reddish stems of this herbaceous perennial are usually simple, erect, smooth, 0.5–2.5 m (1½–8 feet) high with scattered alternate leaves. The leaves are entire, lanceolate, and pinnately veined. The radially symmetrical flowers have four magenta to pink petals, 2 to 3 cm in diameter. The styles have four stigmas, which occur in symmetrical terminal racemes. The leaves of fireweed are unique in that the leaf veins are circular and do not terminate on the edges of the leaf but form circular loops and join together inside the outer leaf margins. This feature makes the plants very easy to identify in all stages of growth. When fireweed first emerges in early spring, it can closely resemble several highly toxic members of the lily family. However, it is easily identified by its unique leaf vein structure.

The reddish-brown linear seed capsule splits from the apex. It bears many minute brown seeds, about 300 to 400 per capsule and 80,000 per plant. The seeds have silky hairs to aid wind dispersal and are very easily spread by the wind. Once established, the plants also spread extensively by underground roots, an individual plant eventually forming a large patch.

The young shoots were often collected in the spring by Native American people and mixed with other greens for eating. They are best when young and tender: as the plant matures the leaves become tough and somewhat bitter. The southeast Native Americans use the stems in this stage. They are peeled and consumed raw. The root can be roasted after scraping off the outside, but often tastes bitter. To mitigate this, the root is collected before the plant flowers and the brown thread in the middle removed. The Dena’ina add fireweed to their dogs’ food.

Fireweed is also a medicine of the Upper Inlet Dena’ina, who treat pus-filled boils or cuts by placing a piece of the raw stem on the afflicted area. This is said to draw the pus out of the cut or boil and prevents a cut with pus in it from healing over too quickly.

Fireweed is the floral emblem of Yukon.

Paul Evans, 3 January 2012

project reflections #13

Before the eating and drinking began on Christmas day, I decided to take advantage of Upperthorpe and the surrounding areas being all but empty of humans and had a little wander about with my camera. This is what resulted.

Joshua Holt, 2011.