The best places to find raspberries are along roadsides, thickets, and clearings.
ILLUSTRATIONS: CORINNE MARTIN
It is 5 A.M. and I'm hoping to foil the bugs and get home
before the heat starts up again. Along the last bend in the
road—where the surface is still soil rather than
asphalt—raspberry grows right up to the cleared
roadway. It is tall and full of fruit, and I pop a few
juicy berries in my mouth as I pick. Bullfrogs twang, and
the birds I've disturbed start up again. Quietly I continue
Raspberry is a prickly stemmed, spreading plant that bears
edible fruit common to roadsides, thickets, and disturbed
areas. Several species are indigenous to the Northeast. The
wild red raspberry, Rubus idaeus, is common to
roadsides and clearings and is the official raspberry of
herbal tradition. Raspberry leaves are alternate and
divided, with three to five sharply and irregularly toothed
leaflets. They are bright green, often with whitish
undersides, and occur along a stiff, prickly stem. These
stems are often arched and form dense thorny thickets.
Plants may grow as high as six or seven feet, and
raspberry's flowers are white or cream-colored, with five
regular petals. (The petals and sepals are roughly the same
length.) Blossoms, approximately 1/2" wide, appear in late
spring and early summer. The raspberry's fruit is a soft,
multi-segmented berry that is edible (more than just
edible—delicious!) and ripens in mid-to late summer.
The berries are juicy and sweet, with fleshy fruit
surrounding many seeds; they make wonderful wild jams,
jellies, and syrups.
Raspberry leaves are astringent and tonic, and have a
special affinity for tissues of the female reproductive
system. A tea of raspberry leaves helps tone the muscles of
the uterus and has been used for centuries to prepare the
system for childbirth. Raspberry tea can also be used to
reduce heavy menstrual bleeding and, in general, to tone
and normalize the reproductive system's functions.
Raspberry leaves and root bark can be used, too, to help
control diarrhea, because its astringency effectively tones
inflamed or irritated tissues. In this case, other species
of raspberry can be used interchangeably, because all share
the same properties of astringency. (If your diarrhea
persists, of course, you should always call your doctor for
Wear thick protective gloves when gathering raspberry. Cut
leaves from stems whenever the plant is in full growth, and
especially when it's flowering. Handle carefully and spread
to dry on screens, baskets, or paper bags. To use the root
bark, dig up medi um-size plants after leafy material has
died during the fall. Wash roots carefully and strip off
the outer bark. Spread out to dry on screens or baskets,
and store when dry. To help control di arrhea, cut bark
strips into small pieces for tea, or place powdered herb in
a blender and mix with honey.
Raspberry is water soluble and works fine as an infusion.
Use one teaspoon of chopped dried leaves per one cup of
boiling water, steep five to 10 minutes, and drink two or
three times daily. A tincture, made from the fresh or dried
leaves, can be added to other herbs that are used to aid
the female reproductive system, such as squawvine and
motherwort. To use the root bark for diarrhea, simmer one
teaspoon of root in 1 1/2 cups of water for 10 minutes;
strain and drink every two hours.
Down by the development road, there's a cleared area where
trees were taken down. However, it is now starting to
become lush with bright new growth. The breeze blows
wonderful scents—pine, dew-covered earth, and the
strong, deep, heady smell of sweet fern. As I start to
gather leaves, I find deer tracks and figure that the deer
must come down here at night, after the construction
crew has left and all is quiet, to stand like I do now,
looking at all the changes. l imagine that they make new
plans, or maybe they just wait, like I do, to see how much
the development changes things. Maybe they can adapt. l
worry for them, though.
Sweet fern is a low growing, deciduous shrub that is
extremely aromatic when crushed. It is generally found in
dry soil along roadsides and in fields along the edges of
forest land. Sweet fern's leaves are alternate and occur
along stiff, woody stems. The leaf margins are wavy and
fernlike (hence the name), and the dark green leaves, which
grow as long as six inches, feel somewhat oily when
crushed. Sweet fern bears fruit in the form of a bristly,
light-green seed capsule that can be found on the plant in
the fall. Plants grow as tall as five feet.
Externally, sweet fern has been used to relieve itching and
irritation from skin conditions such as poison ivy, general
rashes, insect bites, and shingles. Fresh leaves can also
be crushed and rubbed onto the skin to keep away insects
for a short period of time. Internally, sweet fern acts as
a stringent and is useful for mild diarrhea, stomach
cramps, and indigestion. It's also useful as a mouthwash to
help relieve gum inflammations and mouth sores. Not much
more is presently known about sweet fern's actions because
it hasn't yet been studied intensively. It has, however,
had repeated use in folklore remedies in the Northeast.
Cut the plant's leafy twigs any time during its growing
season, spring through early fall. Remove individual leaves
from the twigs, and dry by spreading them out on screens or
other appropriate material. Or, bundle the leafy twigs to
dry, and strip the dried leaves for storage.
Externally, a strong tea of sweet-fern leaves can be
applied to the affected areas of skin on clean cloth
several times a day. If a whole-body rash is evident, fill
a bathtub with the strong tea, and soak your body for 20
minutes several times a day. Internally, you can ingest a
tea made with one rounded teaspoon of dried leaves to one
cup of boiling water. Steep the tea for 10 minutes and
drink several times a day.
Editor's note: Corinne Martin, a graduate of the Institute
of Traditional Herbal Medicine in Santa Fe, NM, is a
certified clinical herbalist who has studied plants for
over a decade. This passage is adapted from "Earthmagic: Finding and Using Medicinal Herbs".