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Bramble On, Blackberry: Wild Food & Medicine

Posted on April 16, 2014 | 0 comments

Tree blossoms fill the air with fragrance, tender seedlings reach eagerly from the soil, and the once impeccably green lawns of my neighbors are now covered in bright yellow tufts of dandelion flowers (muahahaha)! It's that time of year again, when Portland's flora experiences a growth spurt... and is glorious.

Have you noticed the blackberry brambles, though? Yes, they do appear to have doubled in size. Perhaps now would be a good time to get out the shears and harvest some medicine. Don't forget your gloves.

Himalayan Blackberry

Although we have two native North American varieties of blackberry (Rubus fruticosus, Rubus ursinus), farmers introduced a new cultivar to the continent in 1885 that bore larger and sweeter fruit. The variety, Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus, Rubus discolor), was native to Iran and Armenia but easily escaped cultivation and is now an invasive species to most temperate environments worldwide. There is also another European invader creeping around, as well as several intentional and unintentional hybrids such as the marionberry.

The one type that seems to have completely taken over this city is the Himalayan variety. If you have any of these brambles growing on your property, beware. If left unchecked, Himalayan blackberry will overtake half your yard, and you'll need to rent a heard of goats to mow it down.

I would personally be more concerned about our growing wall of blackberry brambles if it wasn't restricted by the concrete driveway, and I'll admit that there are definite benefits to having a personal briar patch. Birds use it as shelter and and protection, I have a source of leaves for tea, and baskets full of juicy berries in the summertime for pies, smoothies, you name it!

Botanical Name: Rubus spp. (Roo-bus)

Common Names: English: bramble, brambleberry, briar, scaldberry, trailing blackberry or dewberry (ursinus variety); Konkow: wân-kö-mil′-ē (ursinus variety); German: bram-bezi; 

Family: Rosaceae

Parts used: Roots/ rhizomes, and leaves medicinally, berries for food, and canes as cordage.

Harvesting/Identification: Arching biennial canes or trailing vines with perennial roots.  Flowers pinkish or white, many stamens, 5 petals. Sharp thorns on most varieties. Several species of blackberry are native to Europe, but now naturalized throughout temperate regions and considered invasive including rubus lacinatus and rubus armeniacus. The variety rubus ursinus, or "trailing blackberry" is native to western North America and rubus canadensis is native to the east coast. The genus rubus also includes other berries such as thimbleberry, salmonberry, and raspberry. All rubus fruits are actually made up of many small berries stuck together- an aggregate fruit. Blackberries and raspberries are often confused. Since there are black raspberries, and unripe blackberries are reddish in color, the easiest way to differentiate them may be examining the way they break from the plant when picked. Raspberries will leave a receptacle on the stem when picked making the fruit a hollow cavern, whereas blackberries will not.

Guide To Differentiating The Varieties

Harvest roots in the fall or before new growth in the spring. Harvest young leaves in early spring before the plant flowers. Berries are best during mid to late summer.

Actions: Astringent, nutritive, anti-diarrheal (leaf and root), mild laxative (fruit)

Energetics: yin, bitter, dry (leaf & root); warm, sweet and sour (berry)

Internal Uses: Blackberry leaf and root are a safe, effective remedy for any circumstances requiring astringent action. It is a traditional remedy for diarrhea or dysentery, the root being the most effective. Blackberry leaf is an excellent gentle remedy for children's diarrhea. The leaves and roots are also known to be used as a home remedy for anemia, regulating menses, cholera and when used over an extended period of time it was shown to be beneficial for enteritis, appendicitis, and leukorrhea (vaginitis). The ancient Greeks considered it useful for gout, and there is also a long hostory of the leaves being chewed for bleeding gums. The berries are a good source of potassium, phosphorus, iron, and calcium, and the seeds contain Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. There is evidence of blackberry fruit having expectorant properties, and supposedly makes a wonderfully nutritious and tasty cough syrup. Blackberry vinegar is also a long standing remedy for feverish colds.

External Uses: Traditionally used in Britain as an external wash or poultice for any type of skin eruption, and it will reduce or stop bleeding. An old English remedy was to guide an afflicted person through the arch of a blackberry cane (it grows upwards but due to weight bends over, growing back into the ground, forming an arch) for several passes. This was said to cure hernia, rupture, or skin conditions such as boils.

Edibility: The ripe berries are deliciously edible are also enjoyed by insects, fowl, and other mammals such as bears and rabbits! Blackberries are often eaten fresh, frozen, or preserved. They are absolutely delightful eaten straight from the bush near the end of a hot summer day, but go ahead and pick extra for wine, pies, jam, juice, or even in blackberry ice cream! The leaves can be dried and stored for use as tea.

Other Uses: Crafts! Rewild Portland offers basketry and weaving classes using native and invasive species such as Himalayan blackberry and English ivy. Blackberry is also a great pollinator plant! I've noticed many bees, moths, and wasps attracted to the flowers.

Folklore: There is so much folklore surrounding bramble! The one I find the most amusing is the reason behind not picking the berries after early autumn. The English legend says that the Devil was kicked out of heaven on October 11th, and he fell onto a patch of blackberry bramble. It was so painful that every year to exact revenge, he urinates (or spits) on the berries to make them inedible.  Around this time the blackberries do start to taste unusual, and the merit behind the Devil-wee tale might be that the increased moisture around this time encourages mold growth, which may cause illness. Which would you find more of a deterrent... a little mold, or Devil urine?

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Since this invasive species has no natural predators, what I'm suggesting is that we fill that role. Birds seem to only eat the berries and spread the seeds, but we can dig the roots, and harvest the greens for use as a nourishing food source, medicine, and crafts!

What are your favorite uses for blackberry?

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