Country diary: the devil's cherries are tantalisingly bright

Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: The fruits of black bryony are jewel-like in the rain – but don’t even think of eating them

A necklace of black bryony berries hangs from the barbed wire like crime scene evidence. Black bryony, the common name of Tamus communis, comes from the Latin bryonia nigra or vitis nigra, but the fruits of the black vine are anything but black. They are currants the colour of autumn – pumpkins, oak leaves, honey fungus, robin redbreasts; they are jewel-like in this morning’s rain; they are ancient medicine and poisonous.

Culpepper the herbalist said “briony” were “furiously martial plants”, imbued with the warlike spirit of orange twinkling Mars in the night sky; the root was used to “purge the belly with great violence” but, because it needed “an abler hand to correct it than most county people have”, it was better not taken internally but used on the skin to cure bruises, broken bones and leprosy.

Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, because they contain saponins, cooking can reduce the risk. The new vine stems, before their heart-shaped leaves open, can be eaten like asparagus, though only if soaked first and well boiled. The plant’s real toxic effect lies in the calcium oxalate crystals within the berries – “the devil’s cherries” – which should never be eaten. These tantalisingly bright fruits of the only British member of the yam family festoon the hedges, scrub and woodland edge on limestone.

On one side of the fence, a bonfire in the corner of a ploughed field sends pale wraiths marching over the hill; tall lime trees retain only lower leaves, oaks are turning orange-gold and the older ash are already bare. On the other side, in the abandoned quarry, goat willow and birch burn brilliantly in yellow spires and domes, and the fieldfares and blackbirds are moving through hawthorns and dog rose, testing their fruits for readiness.

On its strings of dried stems, the bryony berry necklace looks part plastic, part precious, both a temptation and a warning. Poisonous to some creatures and treasure for others, the necklace is a clue, a forensic exhibit that speaks of the complexity of autumnal fruitfulness. The season, for all its generosity and beauty, is not a binge for the greedy but a puzzle where timing is everything and mistakes can be fatal.


Paul Evans

The GuardianTramp

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