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As August mellows into autumn, the smell of ripening blackberries hangs in the air, prompting bicyclists to pause along highways, bucket-laden homemakers to head for the woods, and bears to amble along roadsides where the ebony morsels are within easy reach. Wild blackberries are native to Europe, Asia, North America and South America, but at least two millennia ago Europeans brought blackberries onto their homesteads and began cultivating them for food and medicine. As the prickled canes multiplied around their settlements, vulnerable rural dwellers discovered blackberry thickets were also quite useful for repelling marauders. (Inveterate blackberry pickers believe their torn hands and arms are the price one should pay to collect these delectable fruits. However, for the faint-of-heart who prefer to collect their berries close to home and who’d rather not leave a trail of blood and clothing fragments behind, many “thornless” cultivars are now available.)

Nutrients and Medicinal Constituents

Blackberries are a veritable storehouse of nutrients and pharmacologically active compounds. Delicious flavor aside, the nutrition packaged in a handful of berries explains why they’re such a valuable food source for wildlife: within the turgid skins of each berry (which is actually an aggregate fruit) you’ll find ample doses of vitamins A, C, E and K, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc, protein and fiber.  

Anthocyanins, the pigments that give blackberries their rich, inky color, are potent antioxidants. Blackberries are also a good source of salicylic acid, an anti-inflammatory with proven painkilling abilities (think “aspirin”). The tannins in blackberry leaves are powerful astringents; one of them, ellagitannin, is converted to ellagic acid in the human body. Research has demonstrated that ellagic acid possesses both antioxidant and anti-proliferative (anti-tumor) properties.

Uses

While blackberries’ constituents probably confer several long-term benefits (e.g., protection from heart disease and cancer), the astringent substances found in the plants’ leaves, stems and roots are responsible for their immediate and obvious effects. Blackberry root tea has been used for treating diarrhea, dysentery, stomach pain, cough, hemorrhoids and oral ulcers. The German Commission E approves blackberry leaf tea for diarrhea and inflammation of the mouth and throat. Externally, leaf tea is useful for boils, sores and ulcers. (Soak a clean cloth with warm tea and use as a poultice.) Traditionally, blackberry infusions, teas and decoctions have been employed to treat gonorrhea, excessive menstrual bleeding, whooping cough, “dropsy,” and labor pains.

When collecting blackberries or blackberry plants, wear some stout gloves (preferably a pair that covers your forearms) and carry a pair of bypass hand shears to cut your way to the prime berries – which always seem to be tucked behind a forbidding wall of heavily prickled canes.

And keep an eye out for bears, who always get their choice of picking spots!

Sources

Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs. 2002
Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, Second Edition. Thomas Fleming, PharmD, Chief Editor. 2000
Indian Herbalogy of North America. Alma R Hutchens. 1973


 


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