Raspberry: Starting With Bramble

Dioscorides (IV 38) sets the scene for all later authors and compares raspberry to the preceding entry for bramble or blackberry. He states that bramble (IV 37) contracts and dries, and recommends a decoction of the branches of bramble for diarrhoea and leucorrhoea, but argues that the juice of the leaves and stems, dried in the sum is stronger. Pliny, Turner, Mattioli, Dodoens, Bauhin, Gerard and Parkinson refer to this preparation. Dioscorides recommends the leaves of bramble chewed to strengthen the gums and heal the thrush, and external use of the leaves as a plaster for shingles, head scurf, ‘prolapses of the eye’, callous lumps, haemorrhoids and ground up externally for those with stomach and heart ailments. For bramble, the authors give prominence to the recommendations of Pliny, which are similar to those of Dioscorides but more detailed, and of Galen, who reads like a summary of Pliny with some added material on the temperament of bramble.

The following section is a summary of the recommendations for bramble, as raspberry is considered appropriate for the same uses. For example, Fuchs refers only to bramble and Dodoens gives a full description of brambles. Dodoens identifies the raspberry as growing widely and useful for the same uses as bramble but his recommendations for raspberry do not add to those of Dioscorides.

The authors differ in their emphasis on the parts of brambles: leaves, seeds, flowers, fruit and root, but it is the text of Pliny which appears to be the source of much of the information. Some sections of his text identify the part used and some do not. Galen states that brambles have an astringent quality ‘and these not obscurely’. He observes that the new leaves are more watery and so less astringent whereas Dodoens considers them more astringent, cold and dry almost in the third degree. Galen can be read as stating that the new leaves are useful to chew to heal ulcers of the mouth and ‘have the strength to glue together other wounds’ for their ‘temperature is of an essence both earthy and cold, and watery and warm’. Pliny states simply that ‘they close wounds without any gatherings’. Mattioli, Bauhin and then Parkinson all give the text of Galen.

Pliny gives a usage of bramble for the digestive tract: applied externally near the left breast for heartburn or to the stomach for stomach ache. He then advises the tender shoots for looseness of the bowels, dysentery and discharges of blood, and the berries for heartburn. This is very similar to the text of Mattioli, citing Galen, who advises the flower as similar to the immature fruit, and suitable for dysenteries, flux of the belly, lost strength and spittings of blood. Serapio recommends external use of the powdered herb for a weak stomach ‘full of humours’ but also mature fruits to astringe the stomach or the flower drunk in wine. Similar advice for use in ‘queasy stomachs’ is given by Turner and, in varying terminology, Dodoens, Mattioli, Parkinson, Culpeper and Bauhin. Gerard describes raspberries as similar but less drying and the fruit particularly useful for weak stomachs.

Dioscorides advises the ripe fruit of raspberry for mouth ailments. Pliny recommends the chewed leaves of bramble for affections of the mouth but then states that the blackberries are a better ‘mouth-medicine’ than even the cultivated mulberry. Serapio refers to use of the chewed leaf of bramble in mouth ulcers, which is also given by Gerard and Parkinson. Pliny then recommends the tender shoots of bramble, eaten as a vegetable, or as a decoction in white wine, to strengthen loose teeth. Pliny gives the same preparation as a quick remedy for ‘affections of the uvula’ and this is repeated by the Salernitan herbal, and by Dodoens, Gerard, Parkinson and Culpeper.

Looking at external uses, Pliny states that nothing is more effective as a styptic than the root ‘of a blackberry bearing blackberries’ decocted in wine and reduced to a third, especially for sores in the mouth and the anus and it is ‘so powerful that the very sponges used become hard as stone’. Hildegard recommends the powdered stems of the bramble for external treatment of flesh, where worms are eating, to kill the worms. Turner refers to use of bramble for itching of the head and running sores in the head. This is given by Dodoens, Parkinson and Culpeper. Turner and Dodoens recommend powdered leaf of bramble for cancerous and spreading sores. The Salernitan herbal gives a recipe from Constantine for the young shoots with egg white to be used for hot abscesses, and with rose water for burns.

Pliny offers a recipe for a preparation made from the young stalks, pounded and the juice extracted, dried in the sun until the thickness of honey and taken by mouth or applied as an ointment. He describes this as a specific for affections of the mouth or ears, spitting of blood, quinsy, troubles of the uterus or anus, and for intestinal afflictions. Parkinson quotes Pliny on the value of the juice, describing troubles of the anus as ‘sores of fundament and piles’. Bauhin says that Erasistratus, a Greek and putative founder of the first medical school in Alexandria in the 2nd century BC, healed his own mouth ulcer with the thickened juice. Whether juice was always prepared from stems is impossible to know. Serapio recommends juice from the leaves and tops for the same indications. He is also one of the few authors to make further mention of the womb, recommending this plant to ‘remove chronic humours of the womb’.

Gerard quotes Galen as stating that root is binding and contains a thin substance ‘that wasteth away kidney stones’. Turner, Dodoens, Mattioli and Bauhin agree. Gerard suggests that the berries and flowers are diuretic and a decoction is useful against kidney stones. He ascribes this advice to Pliny although we did not find this reference. Given that both brambles and raspberry are discussed by the authors and that so many plant parts are recommended, this has been a most difficult herb to describe. The reading may still be open to interpretation but it is interesting that Pliny appears to be the main source for all the authors. The entry for blackberry in an ethnographic survey of usage in Britain and Ireland shows how the usage given by the ancients has been transmitted to the 20th century. Alongside the usage for diarrhoea is chewing the tip of a shoot for heartburn and external application for sore eyes, shingles, sores and tumours. One has to conclude that, although brambles are not generally used today, they may deserve a renaissance, especially as they are such a prolific and vigorous native plant.