Medicinal Uses of Berries
Out Back in the Berry Patch
I grew up both picking and growing all sorts of berries, from Strawberries to Gooseberries to Huckleberries, and hauling huge baskets of sweet red Raspberries with my mother in the South is one of my first memories, although I’m certain my basket was much smaller than I now recall it. Berry cobblers are also larger than life in my memory, and I can clearly recall my enthusiasm being such that I had to be hosed down after more than one colorful summertime dessert. Back then, I had no idea that berries were anything besides beautiful and infinitely tasty, and had no clue I would one day find myself gathering them from the mountains of New Mexico to make into medicine for the local village folk.
Berries have not only been a vital food source for most of the world, they’ve also proven to be important medicines. They not only provide much needed nutrients, but can also act in specific medicinal ways, as with Elderberry’s anti-viral and immune stimulating actions, Mulberry’s blood tonic properties and ability to help prevent hot flashes or even Sumac’s traditional use in the South to stop excess secretions. What I cover in regards to the selected berries here is not meant to represent the full spectrum of uses but rather what I have personal experience with and what I think will prove most useful to the practicing or home herbalist. With almost all of the herbs discussed here, multiple parts of the plant can also be used medicinally, either similarly or in different ways. However, I have focused solely on the actions and characteristics of the fruits themselves.
The Benefits of Pie: Antioxidants, Anthocyanins, & Other Colorful Ingredients
Anthocyanins are a type of antioxidant that are colored pigments that occur in most plants, especially in flowers and fruits. Berries such as Elderberries, Blackberries, Raspberries, Grapes, Blackcurrants, Blueberries, Cranberries, and Cherries tend to be especially rich in them. These compounds protect against oxidative damage, and have an enormous impact on overall human health. Most of the specifics are beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll touch on a few important points that clearly apply to herbalists and their practice. Anthocyanins appear to strengthen the vascular system, and some studies indicate that they can lower blood pressure, prevent clots, lessen bruising and varicose veins, as well as reduce excess bleeding. Additionally, we know that anthocyanins can markedly increase visual acuity, even reversing vision loss and night blindness. Clinically, I have clearly seen anthocyanin rich berries increase vascular strength, including in acute vasculitis and I have also seen cases where cardiac health has been significantly improved, and vision loss has been reversed or stopped. Theoretically, they also inhibit cancer cell proliferation and I have seen some clinical work that corresponds with that idea but have no personal experience to cite here.
For the practicing herbalist, food-like plants containing these compounds as part of their medicinal matrix are extremely useful, in part because they’re safe and accessible for almost anyone who might need them. They are not drug like herbs that need to be carefully dosed and they taste so good that compliance is rarely an issue. Most folk won’t complain about their medicine coming in the form of a pie, after all!
Blueberry, Bilberry, Huckleberry, and Allied Species (Vaccinum spp.)
Blueberries are perhaps the first berry that comes to mind when someone brings up the subject, at least in most parts of the United States. This ubiquitous little confection is not only one of the best tasting things on the planet, it’s also an incredible medicine. Like most of the berries discussed in this article, they contain copious amounts of the anthocyanins discussed above. As with all herbs, Blueberries are more than the sum of their isolated parts, but all of the aforementioned qualities do indeed apply to Blueberries.
Specifically, Blueberry fruits are an excellent remedy for liver blood vacuity with symptoms of vision degeneration, night blindness, and other eye issues. Studies indicate that ingestion of significant amounts of any sort of Blueberry can increase eyesight and night vision. Clinical work backs this up, and I have Blueberry and Elderberry concentrates to be very useful in stopping or reversing age related vision loss. I also always use Blueberry alongside other colorful berries such as Elderberry, Raspberry, Hawthorn, and others when treating vasculitis, easy bruising, some forms of anemia, and certainly any kind of blood deficiency. I also like to combine Blueberry, Elderberry, and Blackberry with Hawthorn haws and Rose hips when treating almost any sort of cardiovascular deficiency condition.
The most popular form of taking Blueberries medicinally tends to be in a concentrated solid form or in capsules, but it can work in a variety of tasty preparations. I like elixirs and cordials, as well as simply adding the berries to smoothies, pies, or whatever tasty Blueberry delicacy you personally prefer. For the rare folk that don’t appreciate the flavor, it can easily be blended with other berries like Elderberries if they’re preferred, or can be concentrated into a tincture or elixir that can contain other complimentary flavors such as Cinnamon or even Cacao.
Blackberries, Raspberries, Salmonberries (and myriad other Rubus spp.)
Rubus fruits are an effective treatment for kidney deficiency with frequent urination, and also useful in mild to moderate cases of diarrhea, although the roots and bark, being more tannic, will be of more use in cases of moderate to severe diarrhea or dysentery. Similar to Blueberries and other Vaccinum species, Rubus spp. have a traditional reputation for the treatment of diminished vision. Similar to Elderberries, the fruit of Rubus spp. can be very useful in staving off or shortening the lifespan of many viral infections. Also like Elderberries, they work especially well if used at the earliest sign of onset, usually when there’s still a fever. This applies to viruses as varied as cold/flu and any of the herpes viruses, including shingles and Epstein-Barr virus.
For medicinal applications, I find it useful to dehydrate berries to be later crushed and made into an infusion or decoction. In a pinch though, fresh/frozen berries or even a good jam (meaning that it actually contains copious amounts of the fruit) can be very useful. Blackberry syrup is a traditional remedy for diarrhea in pale, weak infants and is both nutritive and effective.
Elderberry - Sambucus spp. (Sambucus nigra most commonly)
One of the most well known medicinal berries in Traditional Western Herbalism, Elderberry deserves the accolades its received both historically and currently. They’re also widespread and abundant through much of the temperate world, making them an accessible and sustainable medicine. Elderberries not only stimulate the immune system but also contain antiviral compounds that can help either prevent or shorten the duration of cold/flu. The traditional preparation for this use is syrup, but decoction, tincture, elixir, honey and even vinegar all seem to work as well. In fact, I tend to prefer the elixir over most other preparations for the concentrated dose, lack of exposure to antioxidant destroying heat, and a delicious taste that makes it easy to get small children and persnickety adults to ingest without protest.
Sumac/Lemonade Berry (Rhus spp.)
I first learned of Sumac’s ability to check the excessive loss of body fluids as a traditional Southern remedy, but later learned that related Rhus species (R. chinensis and R. punjabensis are the oneI’m familiar with in TCM) are often used in a very similar manner in Traditional Chinese Medicine, although they specifically use the seed rather than the whole berry.
Sumac is most appropriate when there is deficiency from fluid loss rather than cases of excess or stagnation. Look for fatigue, paleness, and lethargy accompanied and triggered by excess fluid loss of any sort, from dysentery to night sweats to frequent urination. Some examples of where White Mulberries would be called for include chronic coughs with dryness and excess sweating,chronic excess urination and sweating, often from a constitutional imbalance, and night sweats and hot flashes. Note that even small doses of the berry tincture either alone or in a formula can make a huge difference when the plant is specifically called for.
White Mulberry - Morus alba
Often considered weedy or invasive, the White Mulberry is common and usually abundant in my part of the American Southwest. Think of White Mulberries where there are signs of general fluid (and specifically blood) deficiency, such as anemia related amenorrhea, thirst, hot flashes, fatigue, dizziness, prematurely gray hair, and listless insomnia where the person is clearly exhausted but just can’t get to sleep. The berries are medicinally viable both fresh or dried, and as a profound yin tonic they seem especially effective when blended with honey. They can be eaten straight, infused into honey, or simply decocted into water. They can also work as a tincture, but because of the nutritive aspect of Mulberry, I tend to prefer that they be ingested as whole as possible for medicinal purposes. Especially when used as a food like medicine, White Mulberries are entirely suitable for long term use when indicated.