Saturday, 12 September 2020

Brambles: medicinal uses

 Now here's an interesting comment: I have written many times about brambles, and always in the context of "how to get rid of the darned things."

 Just type the word "brambles" into the Search box - top left of the page -  to see what I mean!

Recently, one of those old posts received a comment from someone asking about how to uproot a bramble in order to use the roots for medicinal purposes.

Now, you might think that that's quite bonkers - brambles? Useful? - but actually there is some small truth in it: brambles are not quite as totally useless as you might think.

For  a start, time out of mind, the fruit has been eaten: we're all familiar with blackberry and apple crumble, with bramble jelly (not often found for sale these days), with blackberry jam (if you don't mind getting pips stuck in your teeth, uuurgh!) and with just eating the actual raw blackberries.

But did you know that the stems can, believe it or not, be woven into baskets? I have to say, though, that you have to harvest them ("ouch! aargh! blood! ow!"), then strip the spines off, before you can use them, and frankly, who would bother, when there is Willow -  freely available and completely thorn-free, much easier to work with, and which gives a much more satisfactory product?

And then there's dye: the fruits can be used for dyeing fabric officially, as opposed to unofficially ruining any clothing that you wear to go blackberry-picking. Warning - if you have a go at making blackberry dye, don’t work with anything you don’t want stained – and that means, pots, spoons, your clothes - everything. Cover any surfaces that you will be working on, and watch your feet - if you drop one and tread on it, then you'll end up with purple footprints all over the carpet.

 It's not the best of natural dyes - it's a faff to work with (see comment about covering up and avoiding staining, above) and the colour is a rather insipid purple which fades over a few washes to a really insipid grey, while leaking colour all over the rest of your wash. Is it worth bothering with? In my opinion, not really.

And finally we get to the original question, can it be used medicinally: yes, blackberry/bramble (same thing) leaves and root have been used for many centuries, before Boots the Chemist was invented.

There is tons of information on the internet on how to prepare the material, how to use it, and what it's for,  so I'll restrict myself to just two aspects:

1) Getting hold of it.

Roots: If you want to extract useful material, you will need to find big strong blackberry plants, the sort that have been growing for several years, and which have formed a great big clump which contains live growth from this year, and lots of dead canes from previous years.

Chop off the top growth and discard it, and you should then be able to get close enough to dig up the whole clump.

(Obviously if this is on someone else's land, then you will need permission to dig)

Get as much of the root-ball out as you can: a pickaxe or mattock will be useful. Take a spade, and dig vertically in a circle all around the root-ball, at a distance of about a foot or so. This will sever the smaller, unproductive roots, allowing you to lift out the central mass containing the thicker roots, which are the ones you will need.

Shake off the soil, take it home, and start preparing it.

Oh, and don't forget to backfill the hole that you just made, so that no-one falls down it and breaks an ankle: and dispose of the cut-off stems properly, as they will be very spiky and scratchy. Don't leave a massive tangle of vicious branches for someone else to deal with.

 If you just want the leaves, that's much easier:  but you'll need the freshest, youngest leaves, and the best way to obtain those is to cut back a big old bramble, then go back a week or two later, and harvest the new leaves which have sprouted from the cut stems.

2) Using your home-made preparation: always be aware that using "home-made" remedies is a potentially very dangerous game.


a)  For a start, did you get the right plant? As a botanist, I can't mistake a bramble for anything else, but I've seen people mis-identify them. Anyone using any plant/fungus/natural material needs to be VERY VERY SURE that they know how to correctly identify the plant.

b)  Contaminants/weedkiller. Did you check, before you harvested your plants, that they hadn't been sprayed recently? I'm not just talking about weedkiller, although you'll obviously want to be very sure that they haven't been sprayed with those:  there's also muck-spreading to think about, and local fauna urinating/spraying onto it. Just bear that in mind.

b)  Next, variability of "strength" of the final compound. There's a reason that chemical companies charge a lot for modern drugs: the manufacturing process is tightly controlled to ensure that they are 100% certain that what they sell us contains exactly the quantity of active ingredient that it states on the pack. If you go scraping roots and boiling them up, how do you how much of the active ingredient you actually harvested? Was your chosen plant having a good year? Does it contain chemicals other than the ones you want? Do you know the correct time of year to harvest? Many plants alter their chemical composition over the seasons.

c)  Dilution: once you obtained your remedy, how much do you dilute it before applying it/drinking it? As you can't possibly know what strength your compound turned out to be - as per section b) - how will you know how much to dilute it? You could be off by a factor of 10, or 100! All modern medicines have warnings about not taking too many of them - many would kill you, if you took ten times too many of them. Worth bearing that in mind.

If at this point you are saying to yourself, well, it doesn't matter, too much of it won't harm me: then I would caution you to think carefully about all those warnings on drug packets about NOT TAKING TOO MUCH OF IT. Why do you think that a "natural" chemical is not going to harm you if you take too much of it, whereas you totally accept the concept that an "un-natural" one will?  And if you unknowingly dilute it too much, well, it won't do you any good at all, will it?

d)  Why are you taking it? Do you actually know what's wrong with you? If you have an actual illness, are you certain that you know exactly what's wrong with you, and are you quite certain that your chosen natural remedy is actually going to be the right one? There are many lovely little stories on the news about patients taking the wrong drugs, because they've described their symptoms to someone other than a proper, qualified Doctor or Pharmacist, and have been mis-diagnosed. Do bear that in mind.

Finally, when you are researching a natural remedy - and I would hope that anyone considering taking this step would do a significant amount of research - make sure that you find original sources, not modern click-bait cut-and-paste.

I'm sure  you've all heard of the current "fake news" problem: well, it's nothing new, and it applies to every single topic that the internet contains. If you are using the internet as your research source, then you MUST apply due diligence, and do a proper amount of research.

While researching your chosen remedy, make a note of how many sites use exactly the same phrases as each other: this shows that they have merely cut-and-pasted the text. They haven't checked it. And they might have missed out a paragraph or two at the top or the bottom, and that is where you usually find the warnings and cautions. Just because you can find six sites all saying the same thing, this does NOT make it "true".

When you find an original source - usually you can tell by the language that it's "old" - just check out the vast range of ailments which the remedy in question is alleged to help with, and ask yourself: do you really believe that one plant can cure boils, paralysis, hernia or rupture, scalds, scalp infections, burns, rheumatism, blackheads, venomous bites, can stabilise loosened teeth (honest!), be used as an astringent, cure piles, stop looseness of the bowels, cure "soreness in mouth and throat" (without specifying any cause for such soreness), be used as a tonic, and cure dysentery, diarrhoea, and whooping cough as well?

Then ask yourself, at the time when this original source material was written, what was the average lifespan? 70? 60? 50? 40? 30? And what it is now, with modern medicine?

So be careful, if you are thinking of trying a "natural" remedy, in case you accidentally end up dying an "un-natural" death!



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