Rubus Pharmacology: Antiquity to the Present

Saxon image of blackberry at the time of the Læchbook of BaldRubus Pharmacology: Antiquity to the Present

By Kim E. Hummer

HortScience, Vol.45:11 (2010)

Abstract: The genus Rubus L., indigenous to six continents, includes blackberries, raspberries, and their hybrids and is commonly referred to as brambles or briers.Rubusspecies were a food and medicinal source for native peoples soon after the Ice Age. This short article presents only a sample of the wealth of historical reports of medicinal uses for Rubus. Brambles were documented in the writings of the ancient Greeks: Aeschylus, Hippocrates, Krataeus, Dioscorides, and Galen; Romans: Cato, Ovid, and Pliny the Elder; Asian medicinal traditions; traditional Chinese medicine; and the Ayurvedic tradition of India. Folk traditions of native peoples throughout the world have also applied Rubusfor multiple medicinal uses. Although in modern times Rubusis grown for its delicious and vitamin-rich fruit for fresh and processed product consumption, the ancients used the whole plant and its parts. Stems, branches, roots, leaves, and flowers were used in decoctions, infusions, plasters, oil or wine extractions, and condensates. Decoctions of branches were applied to stop diarrhea, dye hair, prevent vaginal discharge, and as an antivenom for snakebites. Leaves were chewed to strengthen gums and plastered to constrain shingles, head scurf, prolapsed eyes, and hemorrhoids. Flowers triturated with oil reduced eye inflammations and cooled skin rashes; infusions with water or wine aided stomach ailments. Greeks and Romans recorded female applications, whereas the Chinese described uses in male disorders. The fruits of R. chingii are combined in a yang tonic called fu pen zi, ‘‘overturned fruit bowl,’’ and prescribed for infertility, impotence, low backache, poor eyesight, and bedwetting or frequent urination. The Leechbook of Bald described the use of brambles against dysentery, combining ancient medicinal knowledge with pagan superstition and herb lore. Medicinal properties of Rubus continue in Renaissance and modern herbals, sanctioning leaf infusions as a gargle for sore mouth, throat cankers, and as a wash for wounds; the bark, containing tannin, was a tonic for diarrhea; and root extract, a cathartic and emetic. Recent research has measured high ellagic acid, anthocyanin, total phenolics, and total antioxidant content in Rubus fruits. Fruit extracts have been used as colorants and are now being tested as anticarcinogenic, antiviral, antiallergenic, and cosmetic moisturizing compounds. From ancient traditions through conventional folk medicines to the scientific confirmation of health-promoting compounds, Rubus is associated with health-inducing properties.

Extract: The Leechbook of Bald is an Anglo-Saxon herbal from Winchester prepared in 920 CE. ‘Læce’ in Old English means healer; a leechbook was a physician’s desk reference. Leechbooks were consulted to determine what kind of blood letting was necessary, if any, whether the patient should rest more or exercise more, if a change of diet were in order, or what medication or herbal remedies were needed. This book was scribed by a monk named Cild under the direction of another monk named Cyril Bald, who most probably was a personal friend of King Alfred. The Læchbook of Bald contained 109 leaves and was written in a large bold hand with one or two of the initial letters faintly illuminated. A Saxon image of blackberry at the time of the Læch book of Bald, 920 CE, is diagrammatic.

The Læchbook of Bald was written in the vernacular by men who were not Latin scholars. The medical knowledge originally based on pagan superstition combined with herb lore was absorbed into Christian tradition: ‘‘Against dysentery, a bramble of which both ends are in the earth [tip layer!] take the newer root, delve it up, cut up nine chips with the left hand and sing three times the Miserere mei Deus and nine times the Mater Noster, then take mugwort and everlasting, boil these three worts and the chips in milk till they get red, then let the man sip at night fasting a pound dish full.let him rest himself soft and wrap himself up warm; if more need be let him do so again, if thou still need do it a third time thou wilt not need oftener,’’ Leechbook II 65.

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