Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Bramble arches

2014-04-13 14.25.29Brambles (Rubus fruticosus agg.) produce long arching stems, known as stolons, which when their growing tips reach the ground root and form new plants. Crawling, or being passed, under one of these arches was believed to be a remedy for a variety of ailments.
The first record of bramble arches being used in folk medicine dates from about 1040, when a medicine containing the ‘new root’ and other ingredients was used to treat dysentery. Passing through an arch as a remedy was first recorded in 1607, when if a horse was ‘shrew-run’ – believed to be paralysed by a shrew – it should be drawn through an arch and it would be well [1].

027In 1686-7 John Aubrey recorded that whooping cough could be cured by creeping under a ‘bramble that roots again in the ground at the other end’ [2]. This use was last recorded, in Monmouthshire, in 1937 [3]. Usually some sort of ritual was involved. In Staffordshire a child with whooping cough was passed over and under a bramble arch ‘nine times on three mornings before sunrise, while repeating:
Under the briar, and over the briar,
I wish to leave the chin cough here’ [4].
Although bramble arches were most often used to cure whooping cough, they could also be used to treat blackheads, boils, hernias and rickets. In Dorset ‘to creep under a bramble three mornings following against the sun, just as it rises, is said to afford a complete cure for boils [5]. Around Zennor, in Cornwall, crawling around a bramble bush nine times was thought to be a ‘certain cure’ for blackheads [6], while in Somerset passing a patient under a bramble arch was believed to cure hernias [7], and in Wales children with rickets or which were slow to walk were made to creep or crawl under ‘blackberry brambles three times a week’ [8].
Finally in Co. Kerry it was recorded in the late 1930s and early 1940s that crawling under a bramble arch would ensure good luck when playing cards [9].

1. I. Opie & M. Tatem, A Dictionary of Superstitions, 1989: 37.
2. J. Aubrey, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme 1686-88, ed. J. Britten, 1881: 187.
3. J. Simpson, The Folklore of the Welsh Border, 1976: 108.
4. J. Raven, The Folklore of Staffordshire, 1978: 51.
5. J.S. Udal, Dorsetshire Folk-lore, 1922: 255.
6. T. Deane & T. Shaw, The Folklore of Cornwall, 1975: 135.
7. K. Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset, 1976: 114.
8. M. Trevelyan, Folk-lore & Folk-stories of Wales, 1909: 320.
9. R. Vickery, Garlands, Conkers & Mother-die, 2010: 43; see also ‘Bramble’ under Material Collected on this website.

Addenda                                                                                                                              1.  Ann-Marie Lafont, in A Herbal Folklore (1984), referring to Devon, recorded that ‘only 30 years ago’ a child with sore eyes was taken to a doctor in North Tawton, who noticed that the child’s body was badly scratched.  His mother explained ‘Us tried to cure ‘un.  Us drawed ‘un three times through a brimble-bush backwards, and us got the old duck to quack three times into the mouth of ‘un, but that didn’t cure ‘un’.  Furthermore, late in the nineteenth century similar methods were used to treat boils and blackheads.

2.  In the Rockbeare area of east Devon a person with blackheads, sometimes known as pinsoles, could be cured by creeping hand and knees under or through a bramble three times with the sun; that is, from east to west.  ‘The bramble however must be of peculiar growth; that is, it must form an arch, rooting at both ends, and if it reaches into two proprietor’s lands so much the better’ [R.J. King, ‘Second Report of Committee on Devonshire Folk Lore’, Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association 9: 88-102, 1877].

3.  ‘The ritual of passing through an arched stem rooted to the ground was used on cows.  Within the last hundred years the Sussex stockmen were still dragging their sick cows through such loops’ [Chris Howkins, Daisy Chains: Plants of Childhood, 1995: 81].

4.  ‘For a cow not chewing the cud or something, a briar that had its two ends growing in the ground was got and passed round the cow’s body three times in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Then you hit her in the stomach with your cap’ [Charles McGlinchy, The Last of the Name, Belfast 1986: 89, referring to Co. Donegal; thanks to J.B. Smith for bringing this to our attention].

5.  ‘People say if a person went under an arched briar his rheumatism would leave him’ [Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Survey, 1937-9, 431: 46-7, Baile Dubh, Co. Kerry].

6. ‘Crawling under a briar will cure fever‘ [Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Survey, 1937-9, 543: 230, Upperchurch, Co. Tipperary].

7. ‘The Murrin [murrain] in cattle could be cured by procuring a briar with both ends growing in the ground and tying it around the effected animal’s body’ [Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Survey, 1937-9, 1013: 244, Dooish, Co. Cavan].

Images: main, Brompton Cemetery, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, February 2015; upper inset, River Froome, near Dorchester, Dorset, April 2014; lower inset, bramble growing from disused factory chimney, Crewkerne, Somerset, July 2015.

Updated 10 October 2023.