Gardening | 3 June 2016Beyond Smoothies: Blackberries are Wellness Superheroes Share article facebook twitter google pinterest The next time you look at a cluster of luscious blackberries and dream about them in a smoothie or pie, press pause: don’t limit your dreams to dessert; the blackberry is actually a mighty force in a medicinal cabinet. (Yes! Medicinal remedies! And you thought they were just tasty berries.) Transform your garden into a Backyard Pharmacy with engaging insights and practical how-tos galore from author Elizabeth Millard, and let blackberries play a starring role in the new wellness-packed stage of your backyard. Backyard Pharmacy / Elizabeth Millard Blackberry Rubus fruticosus Sun: Eight to ten hours per day Shade: Full sun Soil: Well-drained, loosened soil Fertilizer: Use if plant seems to be struggling Pests: Tend to be minimal, but look out for viruses Water: Regularly, depending on soil dryness Grow Indoors? No There are few sights as satisfying in a medicinal garden or patch of wild-growing thicket as a wall of just-ripened berries. When we started our farm and had to rent greenhouse space, I was bringing decayed plant material out to the compost pile (one of those glamorous farm tasks) and came upon a 10-foot stretch of blackberries growing wild and unnoticed along an abandoned building. It was like finding out that Santa Claus is real. When you grow these plants, it’s less of a happy surprise, but I think the feeling is always the same—pure, childlike delight, followed by fingers stained with berry juice. Blackberries, with their dark and shiny exteriors, are particularly gorgeous, and, although it’s mainly the roots and leaves that are used in medicinal preparations, I’m guessing you can find a use for those berries too. Because so much of the plant is used, blackberry can be used for an array of issues, from sore throats to minor burns. Some people have reported that blackberry can be used for more serious conditions as well, such as prostate problems, kidney issues, and anemia—but as always, have a chat with your physician about treating these conditions with herbs. Here are a few ideas for your Rx/medicinal preparations: Create blackberry vinegar by covering a quart of berries with red wine vinegar and steep for a week in a cool, dark spot. Place a small plate inside the jar or bowl to keep berries submerged, which will prevent mold from forming. Strain and store the vinegar in the refrigerator, and use for treating coughs and sore throats. Eat the berries. Small sacrifice to pay for your health, right? Not only do the berries taste great, particularly in a smoothie, but they’re also nutrition-packed and can be diuretic and internally cleansing. (Hint: that means don’t eat too many, unless you need a major cleanse.) Dry the leaves, crush them with a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder, and brew them into a tea that can be used for indigestion or menstrual cramps. Blackberry leaves dry well for making into a tea. Photo credit: Backyard Pharmacy Blackberries in the Medicine Cabinet Blackberry is not only delicious, but also a must-eat for its health properties. Plus, you use the leaves and roots as well, giving it extra points as a whole-plant remedy. High in antioxidants: The wellness word du jour is “antioxidant,” but it’s not just a trend—an antioxidant is a molecule that inhibits oxidation, a process that can cause inflammation and other challenges in the body. In a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, blackberries and certain black raspberries were found to have the highest antioxidant capacity of several berries tested. An array of medicinal uses: Not only are blackberries widespread geographically, but also boast a staggering array of medicinal benefits, according to researchers at the Institute of Pharmacy in India. The study notes that plants in the blackberry family are useful in the treatment of cancer, dysentery, diarrhea, whooping cough, colitis, toothache, anemia, psoriasis, sore throat, mouth ulcer, hemorrhoids, and minor bleeding. Fresh blackberries are delicious made into smoothies. Photo credit: Backyard Pharmacy Plant, Grow, Harvest, Use: Blackberries When buying blackberry plants, you’ll usually have the option of “summer bearing” or “fall bearing,” which means exactly what it sounds like: berries in the summer or fall. You can also choose varieties that are thornless or thorny—although it makes sense that, as a home gardener, you’d want to avoid thorns as much as possible, the varieties that sport thorns can also be a deterrent for squirrels and other pests. Here are some options to consider: Triple Crown: With large berries, this thornless variety ripens early and has a good degree of winter hardiness. It tends to do best in warmer climates. Ouachita: A good option if you’re looking to trellis the plants, and also comes as a thornless variety for warmer zones. Natchez: A newer variety developed by the University of Arkansas breeding program, this is the earliest ripening thornless variety, and has oblong berries. Prime Jim: A good option for cooler climates, this is a primocane variety, which means it will produce fruit in its first year of growth, although it’s likely to be more abundant in the second onward. Plant Blackberries For blackberries, which should produce fruit the second year from planting onward, site selection is crucial. Choose a spot with full sun, since the bushes will thrive most with nice long days of sunshine. Most important, don’t plant a new blackberry bush where any bramble-type plant has been before, such as other bushes or roses. Blackberries can be very vulnerable to disease that occurs as a result of a virus, and this can happen if problems have been building up in the soil over time. Also, wild blackberries can harbor viruses, so if you have both in your garden, keep them well separated from each other. Also, choose a spot that hasn’t had members of the nightshade family (eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes) growing there within the past couple years, since the remnants of those plants could potentially transmit a disease called verticillium wilt to the blackberries, with an emphasis on the “wilt.” Obtain blackberry plants from a nursery or reputable transplant grower, and when bringing them home, keep the plants cozy and wrapped until you’re ready to plant (which, ideally, would be soon after buying them). Plant about 3 to 5 feet apart, and if doing multiple rows, plan on 6 to 10 feet between rows to permit bushy growth. Blackberry stem, roots, and leaves—all can be used for medicinal purposes. Photo credit: Backyard Pharmacy Grow Blackberries Make sure to water well when you’re first getting the plants established, and if you have the room, consider drip irrigation—this looks like a flat hose with small holes in it, which can be hooked up to a hose or spigot. The irrigation line delivers a regular amount of water to the plant without soaking the soil. You can improve soil moisture levels by mulching around the plants with leaves or chopped hay, and add some compost for a nice boost of fertilization. Unless you’re some kind of fruit whisperer (or get a variety classified as “primocane”), the plant won’t bear fruit in the first year, but should provide blackberries in the second and subsequent years. Be sure to water well during the fruit development period, which you’ll recognize by hard, white little berries appearing in early to midsummer. If the bushes seem to be getting out of control at any point, consider trellising them for easier harvest. Harvest & Store Blackberries Once you see those almost-berries, and slightly beforehand, pick some leaves for drying in order to make tea or decoctions. Once the berries form, all of the plant’s energy goes toward that effort, making the leaves less potent in terms of medicinal properties. To harvest the berries, just pick them like a delighted little kid who’s seeing berries for the first time. Once they start fruiting, you’ll be able to pick every three or four days, and harvesting this frequently will help to prevent birds from feasting more than you’d like. With a well-established plant that’s healthy and growing, you can afford to harvest some root bark as well. This has been noted as a good remedy for diarrhea, since the roots have an astringent effect on the digestive system, similar to witchhazel. Just boil the root bark in water for about twenty minutes, strain, and drink every couple hours until there’s some relief. If the taste is too “rootbarky,” add some honey. Some people aren’t fond of eating the hard center that can come with blackberries, but those get ground up beautifully in smoothies. You can also make jams, jellies, pies, or other desserts, although I’m always a bit dubious that a sugar-packed option will still hold medicinal properties. Worth a try, though, right? Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: A healthier life is right at your fingertips – or at least only a few steps from your door! Backyard Pharmacy helps you choose the best “backyard” medicinal plants. All of the plants can be grown easily by the home gardener throughout North America – and used for their healing and natural-remedy properties! Author Elizabeth Millard shares her deep knowledge of what to add to your garden to grow your own medicine cabinet to enhance your health. Each featured plant profile includes: a detailed full-color photograph of the plant and key preparation steps a description and a brief history of the plants (including recommended varieties) how to plant, grow, and harvest the parts of the plant to be used the health and nutritional properties of the plant current scientific research on the plant any special harvesting, storing, or preparation instructions how to use the plant as a remedy any cautions to note Richly illustrated with 200 photographs, Backyard Pharmacy not only includes photography of the plants, but also images demonstrating key elements to the step-by-step preparation, harvest, and storage methods to get the best results from your gardening efforts. Take control of your health. Learn about the benefits of herbs and “backyard friends” and natural health remedies for yourself and your family, and even grow them right in your own backyard. Elizabeth Millard is the author of Indoor Kitchen Gardening, which focuses on practical tips for growing herbs, vegetables, and fruits in indoor settings. She and her partner, Karla Pankow, also own Bossy Acres, a 100-member community supported agriculture farm in Minnesota that provides seasonal produce to members and area restaurants in an effort to build a strong and sustainable local food system. Millard often leads workshops on vegetable and herb gardening as well as herb preparation, fermentation, and cooking with seasonal ingredients. As editor of local sustainable food site Simple Good and Tasty, she encourages readers to connect with the state’s abundance of organic growers, ranchers, food artisans, nonprofit agencies, and each other, forging a stronger food landscape. In addition to farming, teaching, and editing, she has contributed articles to Hobby Farm Home, Experience Life, and Urban Farm magazines, along with many other publications. She and Karla live in south Minneapolis with their two impossibly spoiled dogs, Idgy and Ruthie Mae. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.