Collectively, the members of the genus Rubus are the Herb of the Year for 2020. Rubus includes raspberry, blackberry, and other berries less well known. These are the red, blue, purple and black nuggets of tangy goodness we devour in pies, puddings, sauces, ice cream, crepes and smoothies. The sweet-tart-floral taste and the sheer juiciness of the berries is pure pleasure. And should pure pleasure ever need justification, we can smugly declare that these berries possess potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that protect our health and may even extend our lives.
But why are these berry plants considered herbs? It may surprise some to know that these plants are medicinal. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Greek physician, Dioscorides, wrote that a decoction of blackberry tops "stops the flows of the intestines," a reference to the plant’s ability to stop diarrhea. He added that it also "restrains the excessive menstruation of women," another known healing property of the plant. Even earlier, the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates, recommended soaking the leaves and stems in white wine and applying that as an poultice on bleeding wounds. Today, science tells us that the leaves and stems raspberry and blackberry are rich in highly astringent tannins, and the astringent effect helps to tighten up loose bowels, sagging wombs, and open wounds, thus stanching the "flows".
Evidence of the earliest use of Rubus as food dates back 8,000 years, soon after the Ice Age. With more than 700 species found growing on six continents, there is little doubt that Rubus was a food source for hunters and gatherers pretty much everywhere. The cultivation of Rubus for food use is much more recent, however, becoming widespread in Europe only 500 years ago.
Thanks to desegregation, Rubus plants are happily found amongst a diversity of flowers, veggies and herbs in today’s gardens. But they are not small nor tidy, and they need some elbow room. Red raspberries need to be spaced 2-3ft (60-90cm) apart; black raspberries need 3ft (90cm); and blackberries 4-5ft (120-150cm). They are all hardy perennial shrubs and grow best in well-drained soil and full sun, though they can tolerate some shade. Other than occasional pruning and perhaps some trellis support for the canes, they need little special care.
Thanks to the Herb of the Year program of the International Herb Association, a program intended to educate the public about the value and uses of selected herbs, we at Richters are celebrating Rubus’ time under the sun in 2020. In its honour, we added some of the most important and most loved Rubus herbs (and berry plants!) for you to try.