In praise of Rubus, or a ramble on brambles

In an old-ish Farming Today podcast from the BBC, I recently heard—with some measure of dismay—that farmers (or at least the one interviewed) in the UK are removing their raspberries to plant the new-ish superberry in the block, chokeberries. Recently renamed with its less threatening latin name, Aronia.

I’m not necessarily against cultivating new, imported crops—well, actually, I probably am, but that’s another story—, or celebrating the powers of superfood—well, actually, I find that too often it is just a hype—, but why would one replace the most delicious berry, which can just be plucked and enjoyed, for something that needs to be processed to taste nice? Yes, you got it: the reason some people are planting them in Europe is because chokeberries sport a long list of health-promoting properties, and are considered by the experts—or so we are told—as the new miracle food (sorry, can’t avoid being a bit sarcastic). Of course, another new superberry is just around the corner—what came first, goji or choke?.

Anyhow, I disgress.

Köhler’s beautiful drawing, 1887

Raspberry, Rubus idaeus, is a plant of the very diverse and generally delicious Rosacea family, something one can clearly see in the beautiful flowers, which look much like a wild rose. The flavour of a ripe raspberry is amazingly delicious—next time you eat one, just take a moment to savour it and tell me if you disagree. It is a relatively delicate fruit, so it doesn’t keep well for too long, and, once harvested, it is prone to moulding. But if you cannot eat them all at once, it can be preserved as an excellent jam.

Raspberry may once have been itself a superfood—and thus a bit like its distant cousin the chokeberry (another Rosacea)—, and was coveted by the Romans, who probably distributed it all accross Europe. The name Idaeus means “from Ida”, a Mountain in Greece where it is believed Romans first found them.

Raspberry is one of those funny “berries” that are actually not a berry in the botanical sense, but an agregate of drupelets—drupe being the fancy name for stone fruit. This merely means that a raspberry is a bunch of tiny plum-like fruits, in which the seeds are separated from the flesh by a relatively thick and hard layer—the endocarp.

Raspberries also sport quite a long and heavy list of healthy substances. In a superficial head-to-head comparison with chokeberries, based on the relatively poor information in the USDA, I find that raspberries have substantially larger amounts (more than 20%) of, amongst other substances: alpha-carotene, vitamin C (26 to 3 mg per 100g raw fruit), folates, manganese, zinc, and iron; whereas raw chokeberries win in beta-carotene (58 to 12 µg), total sugars (11 to 4 g), total fat, vitamins B6, K and A, calcium, potassium and phosphorus. In this study, the authors compare the antioxidant activity or chokeberry against that of many other fruits. It is indeed amazing: 160 against 29 ORAC (a controversial unit of antioxidant activity) in raspberry.

Note, however, that raspberries still do very well, and that, importantly, the values for chokeberries are in raw fruits. A lot of substances will precipitate (in the case of salts) or denaturate (in the case of some vitamins) when cooking.  Which one generally does with chokeberries. Also, the antioxidant values used by most Aronia lobbyists are measured in a way that is recently considered “not physiologically relevant”.

But what I find crucial is, that, unlike in chokeberries, the whole raspberry plant could be quite useful.

Raspberry leaves are rich in tannins and flavonoids, and have been used as an antihemorragic since time immemorial. Tea from the leaves is thought to help against diarrhea and inflamation of the gut, as a blood-detoxifier and heart-fortifier. It may also help regulate menstruation and reduce menorrhagia. Their slightly sedative properties could help against anxiety—especially when mixed with linden. Fresh crushed leaves have a cicatrising effect thanks to the tannins, zinc, and ascorbic, benzoic  and caffeic acids, and are used to treat skin diseases such as eczemas, dermatitis and acne. The flavour is nice and bitter, and they are sometimes used as a coffee substitute. I write this while enjoying a nice brew of raspberry leaves…

Although there are not many studies on the medical propertied of raspberry leaves, I have succesfully used them myself to reduce menorrhagia, regulate heart rate, reduce anxiety and heal superficial wounds.

Raspberry shoots are a traditional Eastern-European remedy against bacterial infections of the respiratory tract.  Moreover, they can apparently be eaten very much like asparagus!  I have no experience with that, but I will surely go foraging for raspberry shoots and try.

I’ve found several sources claiming that raspberry roots can also be eaten, but they all have the same text, so I will wait with that…  However, why not?

Although the Aronia plant does not seem to be poisonous to animals—a rumour has spread around due to the toxicity of the very similarly named chokecherries—, I am still to find any source stating that anything but the fruits is edible or useful in the chokeberry.

In summary, given that raspberry is more or less a native species, we have not much nutritional information yet on the processed chokeberry, and the raspberry is very useful as a whole, and a classic of European natural medicine, please don’t replace your raspberries!  Explore and exploit their many uses and posibilities instead.

The most common bramble around these parts, the blackberry, shares many of the raspberry’s properties. The information is quite messy, though, as there are several Rubus species called blackberry. They deserve a ramble on their own…


Some references: