When a person speaks of the healing power of plants, herbs often come to mind first—the roots of echinacea, the leaves of mint or the flowers of chamomile. However, until recently berries were overlooked as important contributors to natural health. Is this because until recently the properties of berries hadn’t been studied? Or maybe it’s just that we can’t believe anything that tastes so sweet and delicious can be good for us. Whatever our prejudice may be, berries are packed full of amazingly healthful phytochemicals and flavonoids and shouldn’t
All berries contain an array of vitamins and minerals, plus dietary fiber, but each berry’s unique mix of chemicals gives it a different health benefit. Generally, the darker the berry, the stronger its health benefits since the properties that make up the berry’s color are what also help our bodies fight disease.
The best berries for flavor and health benefits are those that have been shipped the least. Growing your own or purchasing from your local berry farm are the best choices for you, your palate and the environment. If you have a little space in your garden, it is easy to find a berry variety or two that will grow in your climate. If you can’t grow your own or live in an area where berry farms are few and far between, frozen and dried berries have been found to contain nearly the same antioxidant levels as freshly picked (and more than what is found in berries that have been shipped fresh over long distances).
Currently the star of the berry world, the blueberry is a powerhouse of phytochemicals. Studies by Tufts University have found that older rats fed blueberries daily significantly improved cognitive and circulatory function when tested against rats that ate no blueberries. In addition to helping your brain and heart, blueberries also contain lutein, an important carotenoid for maintaining eye health. Blueberries are related to many native temperate plants of the northwest and grow well in the backyards of the area, but don’t tolerate the heat of southern climates very well.
What says “summer” like a fresh strawberry? Easy to grow in most any yard and also found in the wild, the smell and taste of a ripe strawberry can’t be beat. Among commonly grown berries, the strawberry contains the highest vitamin C content (100 mg per cup), which is important for immune function and overall health. They also pack a healthy dose of magnesium and fiber. Studies show that strawberries have a similar benefit to blueberries for improving brain function.
Raspberries and Blackberries
These delicate late-summer berries are the basis for tasty treats like freezer jam and cobblers. They also have been found to be among the strongest berries for attacking free radicals in the body. The phytochemical mix in the raspberry and blackberry (also known as the black raspberry) works in our bodies as an antioxidant, gobbling up free radicals and fighting cancer. The numerous varieties of this cane berry make it easy to find the right variety to grow in your climate and it’s easy to find a patch of blackberries while you’re out hiking.
More than just a side dish for Thanksgiving, cranberries have been long touted for their help with preventing bladder infections. The claims aren’t unfounded. The cranberry has been shown to have amazing antibacterial qualities. By preventing bacteria from being able to adhere to the walls of the urinary tract, the phytochemicals in cranberries do indeed prevent infection. In a similar manner, they also help fight the bacteria responsible for periodontal disease. Cranberries are not convenient to grow in most gardens, but are usually on sale in the fall and will keep in the freezer quite well.
While probably not easily found in your local grocery store, if you can find currant shrubs (black is most common) to grow in your backyard, they are definitely worth the space. Among other nutritional properties, currants have two times the potassium content as bananas and are packed full of B vitamins. Currants contain a variety of phytochemicals that act as anti-inflammatories to reduce pain in a similar manner to ibuprofen, and also act on the factors that contribute to cardiovascular and neurological disease. Currants can be bitter so they are rarely eaten raw and are instead used to make juices or preserves.
The health benefits and flavors of delicious seasonal berries can’t be matched. The next time you serve up a dish of berry cobbler or strawberry shortcake at a get-together, remember to go heavy on the berries.
Tammie Painter guards her herbs and other favorite plants from the slugs in her Milwaukie, Oregon, garden. She wins, most of the time.