Briar Patch Medicine

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I had just completed my sophomore year of college, and my nerves were stinging from the stress of final exams. As I steered my car onto the freeway that would take me to my home in Bellingham, Washington, a rich cloud of wild rose perfume drifted through my open window from an embankment hedge. Tension immediately evaporated from my body, as if I had taken a powerful tranquilizer, and I nearly closed my eyes. Such was my first inkling of the power of peripheral herbs.

Whether they stand as a garden hedge, a living fence around a pasture, or unkempt brush growing beyond a manicured yard, “peripherals” (plants that function as borders) often labor in obscurity. But some of these plants are more useful as food and medicine than the pampered crops they protect.

Genera Rosa, Rubus, Ribes, and Rhus–the “four Rs” of the peripheral fraternity–divide most of the world’s perimeter work among them. They contain high levels of vitamin C and are widely enlisted in the war against the common cold. They also contain tannin, an astringent used to treat diarrhea, skin disorders, and sunburn, as well as to tan hides and set dyes.

Hedges have marked European property lines for millennia. When ­installing such partitions, peasants ­favored plants whose medicinal and culinary value equaled their merit as a boundary. Today, Europe’s venerable hedges rival the tropical rain forest in biodiversity per yard. Although only a few feet wide, these impenetrable tangles (Normandy’s hedgerows halted tanks in their tracks during World War II) are refuge to several endangered species in an ever-urbanized ­environment.

Many North Americans might chafe against such permanent boundaries, where land changes hands almost as readily as coins. Yet, the abundance of unmanaged land in this part of the world supports a wealth of “peripherals without portfolio”, scrappy plants that thrive uninvited on roadsides, railroad embankments, and vacant lots.

Rosa, queen of flowers

The creamy scent that nearly sent me into the ditch that day on the freeway has been a favorite of many since ancient times. Oil from roses, especially from the cabbage rose (Rosa centifolia), is known as “Rose de Mai” in the perfumery trade and is culti­vated commercially only in the south of France.

In addition, rose oil is valued for its astringent properties and is used as an ingredient in ointments and lotions. But because genus Rosa is so ubiquitous in folklore, it can be difficult to separate fact from fancy regarding its medicinal uses. For example, the dog rose (R. canina) owes its name to the Romans’ belief that the plant cured rabies, and medieval healers dabbed rose water on the temples and brow to break fevers and calm the insane. Although modern science has debunked these applications, it does endorse Rosa as an important pharmacological resource. Rose oil contains about 300 chemical components, two-thirds of which have yet to be isolated.

Herbalists use every part of the rose plant. Some European herbalists recommend chopping up and infusing the entire bush, including the roots, stems, leaves, and flowers. For centuries, herbalists in Europe and the Middle East have used a mixture of rose water and honey as a purgative.

When German U-boats cut Britain off from its citrus-producing colonies in the 1940s, the British government tapped England’s rose hedges for vitamin C. The fiery red, round fruits, or hips, of wild roses are one of the richest natural sources of this vital nutrient, so much so that tangy rose hip tea is lauded by many as a strong defense against the common cold. Fresh rose hips also are a source of vitamin A, and their fuzzy seeds contain vitamin E. Some Native American tribes consider rose hips an excellent breath freshener. But be aware that raw hips contain tiny fibers in the rinds that can pass intact into the rectum, where they will irritate delicate tissues, so you may wish to avoid eating them.

Rose petals make a delicate, fragrant wine, and the leaves, flowers, and fruits are infused for tea. Jellies and syrups are made from the flowers, fruits, and leaves.

Unlike domesticated roses, wild rosebushes are extremely hardy and disease-resistant. Also unlike their servile cousins, wild roses perish very quickly in a vase. Wild roses have more thorns than domesticated roses, and the thorns are finer; nurseries specializing in native plants may carry wild rose plants. To fill your house with the heady aroma of wild roses, plant them under your windows. Then, when summer sunshine coaxes their scent into the air, your open windows will draw it inside.

Rubus, the affordable herb

Several Native American cultures, including the Cherokee, value blackberry leaf tea as a treatment for joint pain.

The genus Rubus includes most of the “brambles”–the thorn-bearing, berry-producing vines or canes ideal for fence duty. Blackberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries, and dewberries are all Rubus species, as are the hybrids boysenberries and loganberries. Able to thrive on most any untended patches of land, Rubus enjoys a place of honor in nearly every culture and is known for its affordability. Bramble, or blackberry, jam is traditionally served with oatmeal scones in Scotland. Medicinally, blackberry juice, wine, and cordials are prized for treating diarrhea and stomach disorders in China, Haiti, Brazil, North America, and northern Europe. Because these preparations are mild and pleasant-tasting, they are particularly effective for children. Some Rubus leaves, such as blackberry and raspberry, make fine teas, used alone or blended with other ingredients.

Several Native American cultures, including the Cherokee, value blackberry leaf tea as a treatment for joint pain. Two species, Himalayan (R. procerus), which came to North America by way of England, and Evergreen (R. laciniatus), more commonly called cut-leaved bramble, cut-leaf black-berry, or parsley-leaved bramble, are now the most common blackberries in North America. They bear green leaves year-round. The tribes of the Pacific Northwest, however, believe that the scarlet winter leaves of the native species R. ursinus (whose common cultivar is ‘Loganberry’) make a more flavorful beverage.

Native Americans also infuse blackberry roots and rhizomes for use as an eyewash, cold remedy, and general tonic. During the colonial period in New England, several Oneida villages are said to have weathered an outbreak of dysentery by drinking blackberry root tea. While those villages suffered no casualties, scores of white colonists succumbed, unwilling to trust the “primitive” medicine.

Many cultures, including Native American and Haitian, rely on infusions of raspberry (R. idaeus) leaves and bark as a tonic against miscarriage, morning sickness, and uterine spasms during pregnancy, and to ease labor. Rubus decoctions also are used worldwide as topical relief for skin irritations associated with conditions such as hemorrhoids, scabies, and herpes.

Rubus leaves have been used to combat ailments of the mouth, including canker sores and bleeding gums. Typically the sufferer chews a fresh leaf, though wicked thorns on some species’ leaves can cause more harm than good. In many northern European cultures, raspberry juice is used as an excellent oral antiseptic and gargle. To use, simply dilute raspberry juice in water and gargle as you would with any commercial mouthwash.

Ribes, the English icon

The gooseberries and currants of genus Ribes are so common in hedgerows throughout the English countryside that it would be difficult to imagine the country without them. Gooseberry fool, a sweet, creamy fruit puree, is as essential a summer accessory in England as watermelon is in the United States. Currants glorify many of the sumptuous baked goods that have made England’s afternoon teas famous. The iconic status of Ribes in the United Kingdom has even inspired the makers of Ribena (an English black currant beverage) to bill their product as “quite possibly the world’s most civilized fruit drink”. While science would be hard-pressed to verify this claim, there is no doubt that Ribes species are a boon to herbalists.

The fruits and flowers of goose­berry and currant shrubs embrace all the colors of the rainbow. North American varieties play an important role in native cultures. While gooseberries and raw currants can cause nausea if eaten in large quantities, in small amounts they bring flavor and valuable nutrients to a variety of dishes.

Dried currants, which resemble raisins, are an indispensable winter foodstuff in Siberia and other northern regions of the world, owing to their long shelf-life and vitamin C content. Thinned with water, the unsweetened currant juice even substitutes for wine in Europe. Herbalists in Europe, Asia, and North America use currant juice to calm upset stomachs, improve weak appetites, and rehydrate feverish patients. One species, sticky currant (R. viscosissimum), readily identified by its gluey, bristly skin, may be a strong vomitory. The dried “currants” on the U.S. market are actually a type of raisin and not derived from a Ribes.

Legend has it that some Native Americans used a tea made from young Ribes leaves to treat kidney stones and ate seedy fresh currants to provide sluggish bowels with dietary roughage. Frontier healers recommended currant jelly dissolved in whiskey for cold symptoms. They varied this with a mixture of black currant juice and honey, particularly for treating sore throats.

Young black currant leaves are used as a culinary herb in northern Europe, where they turn up in herbed butters and vinegars. Alas, in some parts of North America, black currants have been completely eradicated because they carry white pine blister rust, a disease that attacks valuable timber. Although rust-resistant hybrids are now available, it is still illegal to plant black currants in some states. Before you decide to plant black currants, ask your county extension agent about the latest Ribes policy in your area.

Rhus, the loved and hated

The fourth R, Rhus (sumac) is conspicuously absent from northern European folklore. Although native to all forty-eight contiguous states, as well as to Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean, sumac only recently arrived in northern Europe. Now, thanks to its fiery autumn foliage, sumac is gaining popularity in northern European gardens.

A highly diversified genus, Rhus contains tannins used for tanning and dyeing. The lacquer tree (R. verniciflua) and the Japanese wax tree (R. succedanea) are traditional Asian sources of the materials for which they’re named.

North Americans have a love-hate relationship with Rhus plants. On one hand, the sumacs are admired for their exotic beauty and herbal assets. On the other, they are detested for such species as poison oak (R. diversiloba) and poison ivy (R. radicans), although their toxins are used to treat joint pain, fevers, and even snakebite. Harmless sumacs bear little chemical resemblance to their poisonous cousins and, barring allergies, pose little threat. Most botanists are trying to resolve this love-hate situation by segregating noxious Rhus species into a new genus, Toxicodendron.

Because the generous malic, citric, and tartaric acid content of sumac’s red berry clusters reaches its height during Indian summer, the pink lemonadelike drink made from them has been a traditional harvest-time thirst-buster. Farm kitchens also have relied on sumac as a substitute for vinegar and lemon juice. Common names such as lemonade berry and vinegar tree recall these customs. The fuzzy berries of staghorn sumac (R. typhina) infuse best. Interestingly, most of the resulting liquid’s color and abundant vitamin C come from the little hairs, not from the berries themselves. Where staghorn sumac is unavailable, the less-hairy berries of smooth sumac (R. glabra) and squawbush (R. trilobata) can be substituted.

The sap of smooth sumac, an important antiseptic on the frontier, was applied externally to wounds. As sumac bark tea, it also was used to treat internal bleeding. Squawbush, also called cramp bark, owes its common names to Indian women who infused its bark to counter cramps and other menstrual problems. Native Americans also mixed dried sumac leaves with their tobacco to break the smoking habit. Over time, as they increased the amount of sumac in their smoking mixture, they decreased the amount of tobacco, so nicotine levels would drop. Sumac’s acrid flavor would take over and, eventually, the need for the narcotic kick dropped off.

Dried, ground sumac berries from R. coriaria are a standard seasoning in the Middle East. In fact, the name “sumac” comes from the Arabic word for “tall”. Middle Eastern groceries often carry the tart red spice, which is particularly associated with a stale-bread salad called fattoush. Zattar, an all-purpose Arab seasoning, is made by mixing sumac with thyme and other herbs.

A fulsome foursome

Be on the lookout for the four Rs flourishing on the edges of the horticultural world. You might even con­sider using them to make a living fence or two. Your hedges will bring you great visual pleasure and, in the case of wild roses, aromatherapy as close as your windowsill. Additionally, they possess greater ecological value than chain-link or other nonliving fences. At the risk of making a bad pun, an investment in peripheral herbs is one that will pay off many times over in fringe benefits.

Robert K. Henderson combines his interest in herbs, history, folklore, and research in the articles he writes in Olympia, Washington.

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