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Backyard Herbalism: Berry Smarts

Updated on August 2, 2012
Sweet Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) shortly before her demise
Sweet Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) shortly before her demise

What's Growing?

Blackberry Rubus occidentalis

Red raspberry Rubus idaeus (European), Rubus strigosus (American)
Both belong to the rose family

Grows wild in moderate climates.

Easily cultivated. Perennial, biennial canes. Thorny.

Pruning. The canes can be trimmed back to 3-5 feet during the year they first come up to keep them from getting too gangly and to encourage bushy growth. In the second year they bloom and bear fruit. In the fall cut back the canes that bore fruit that season. It can take a couple of years to be well established. Watch out though, roots can be invasive if not contained.

I have some briar berries in my yard. They're not blackberries or raspberries but either a hybrid left behind or a wild variety. It doesn't matter. They're good, and that's the main thing I need to know.

So Berry, Berry Smart

From pies to muffins, sodas and syrups, most of us are familiar with the delights that blackberries and raspberries bring to our palate but did you know they even know their abc's? That's right, they know Vitamins A, B, C, D (D, that is, when you go out into the sunshine and pick them) and E as well as anti-oxidants. Berries also benefit the digestive system and sore throats. And not only the berries are smart. If you scratch yourself on thorns while picking, just apply a crushed leaf to the scratch for first aid! Then go back to the house and have a nice glass of iced raspberry leaf tea with a few berries thrown in to sweeten it up.

Of course, you could go to the store to get your berries (skip the Vitamin D), but if Mother Nature is so kind to provide you with wild berries nearby (as she does me) the fresher berry will be much richer in nutrients and taste. Even fresh picked berries only last a few days in the fridge. If you want to enjoy the benefits of your berries longer than that you can make a syrup or vinegar out of them. And not only the berries are smart. If you scratch yourself on thorns while picking, just apply a crushed leaf to the scratch for first aid.

Berry Vinegar

Soak mashed berries in white or apple cider vinegar for a couple of days. Strain through cheesecloth and use this liquid to soak another batch of mashed berries for a couple of days. Strain again, as many times as necessary to remove all particles of berry. Simmer the fluid with a cup of sugar for every 2 cups of fluid just until it comes to a brisk boil. Remove any foam off the top and put the remaining fluid into sterile jars or bottles.Take about a quarter cup in a mug of hot water or a glass of iced water. Try with seltzer water over ice on a hot day as a nice treat.

A Therapeutic Berry Vinegar

In The Complete Medicinal Herbal, Penelope Ody has another recipe for a raspberry vinegar that can be used in cough mixtures or gargles for sore throats. This recipe has been adapted from hers. Not a bad tasting way to take your medicine!

Steep 1 part berries in 2 parts red wine vinegar for a couple of weeks. Strain!

Mother Nature is really quite simple sometimes!!

Blackberry leaves.
Blackberry leaves. | Source
Young Green Blackberries (Rubus occidentalis).
Young Green Blackberries (Rubus occidentalis). | Source

More than just berries

While those juicy and flamboyant berries tend to steal our attention there is great benefit to the leaves as well. They make a wonderful warming and slightly bitter tea that can be taken simply for enjoyment or to assist the healing of mouth sores and the relief of intestinal upsets. If you find the tea too dry for your mouth, I'd recommend adding the squeeze of lemon. A strong tea can also be used to cleanse sores and soothe varicose veins and hemorrhoids.

Pick the leaves early in the season when the flowers are still blooming or at least the berries are still small and green. Then they are at their most nutritious. I have the best luck drying them by throwing them lightly (not packed tightly) into paper bags and leaving them in a cool dry place.

Pour a cup of hot water over a tablespoon of crushed dried leaves or two to three fresh leaves for an infusion of berry leaf tea. If you use dried herbs and you don't like little bits of herb in your tea, use a tea-ball or a teapot that strains the herbs as you pour.

When identifying raspberries note the pale green-grey underside of raspberry leaves - also true of blackberries although the blackberry leaves and plant are much bigger.
When identifying raspberries note the pale green-grey underside of raspberry leaves - also true of blackberries although the blackberry leaves and plant are much bigger. | Source

Raspberry Leaf's Distinction: For the ladies

While I've discussed these two cousins together, studies have proven that raspberry does have one property that it does not share with blackberry. Raspberry leaf tea acts as a uterine relaxant and raspberry leaf tea will soothe annoying menstrual cramping. Women have also been using raspberry leaf in pregnancy for ages, to help with morning sickness, to prepare for childbirth and to ease the discomfort of labor. It was my best friend during both of my pregnancies.

What Science Doesn't Tell Us

Common sense should tell us that eating a variety of fresh foods is good for us but sometimes we need a little science to give us extra motivation. Yet sometimes studies can be confusing and leave more questions than answers. Conclusions can be vague. Sometimes one study will conclude something and another will come along to contradict it. Often when it comes to common uses of herbs there are no studies at all. Just because a study concludes that this food, herb, flavonoid or vitamin does something doesn't mean all other possibilities weren't ruled out or that the design of the study was good. Like we could ever really quantify the different ways a herb can benefit us or contribute all the benefits of a food to one or two compounds. Perhaps we don't need to know everything about what we consume other than we like it and it helps us feel good or at least it doesn't hurt us? You can always just enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer and know it's good for you because of your experience with it. That said, a little knowledge of the science can lead to a fuller understanding of the plants we consume for whatever reason. Just take it with a grain of salt.

What Science Tells Us About Berries

Cancer. One study from the Ohio State University showed a decrease in progression to esophageal cancer in folks that are high risk due to the effects of chronic reflux disease when dried blackberries were eaten daily. Many other studies have pointed to blackberry's antioxidant effects as a way to decrease one's risk of cancer.

Cardiovascular. Blackberries and raspberries are rich in antioxidant flavonoids that include anthocyanins and polyphenols. In one study subjects who ate blueberries more than once a week had a 10% reduction in high blood pressure (Cassidy, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010). This is attributed to anthocyanins which are bioflavonoids that are responsible for the deep colors of berries as well as other foods such as red grapes and eggplant. Research suggests polyphenols have a role in vascular endothelial health (that is, the health of the lining of the blood vessels) which can decrease the risk of inflammation. It may also be that a diet including polyphenol-rich foods like blackberries increases high-density lipoproteins (HDLs, the "good" cholesterol) thus decreasing risk of atherosclerotic disease however further investigation is needed (Habauzit, Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease, 2012).

Blueberries, raspberries and strawberries all have similar amounts of antioxidants. Cranberries have 50% more antioxidants and blueberries have 100% more antioxidants than the first group of berries.

Wild blackberries were found to have 7 times or more the amount of anthocyanins that blackberries do on average (Cuevas-Rodríguez, Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 2010).


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