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Using Autumnal Wild Berries to Support Your Health and Immune System

Updated: Nov 2, 2022


Rosehips, Sloe/Blackthorn, Guelderberry/Crampbark and Hawthorn

(Photo credit: Claire Jefferies)


This is the second in a series of blog posts which highlight some of the seasonal wild foods available to forage across the UK. For this series, Pavla (owner of Hejgro) takes Claire Jefferies (a Frome-based food writer) on regular walks across Somerset to see what is ripe for the picking. Claire’s posts share tips on how to safely identify and prepare these foods, and will often give suggestions of how they can be enjoyed in a range of dishes. A full recipe will usually be featured as well, using at least one seasonal ingredient found on the walk. On this occasion, Claire and Pavla were joined by Frome-based medical herbalist Roses Leech-Wilkinson, who offered up some of her vast knowledge on the medicinal properties and uses of wild berries.


Please note: None of the information given in this article constitutes medical advice. Readers are advised to consult with a medical herbalist and/or their own GP before using any wild foods for medicinal purposes. This is particularly important if you have any underlying health conditions or are on any medication, are pregnant or breastfeeding.


Using Autumnal wild berries to support your health and immune system

By Claire Jefferies


Where did we head for our latest forage?


Rodden Meadow, central Frome, Somerset UK.


What did we find there?


We began our walk on Willow Vale, walking away from the town centre, which takes you along the left-hand side of the meadow. There we spotted Roses’ namesake - rosehips - which have a wide range of therapeutic uses.


ROSEHIP

(Photo credit: Claire Jefferies)


These shiny, teardrop-shaped berries, which contain more vitamin C than oranges, are good for our stomach lining and beautifully balancing for the gut microbiome. Pavla describes humans as ‘walking cities inhabited by bacteria’, of which there is a huge amount just in the gut alone. Rosehips can be helpful for people who are depleted in some way and are prone to infections. Perhaps you have a nutrient deficiency or have been on a plant-based diet for some time and have not been able to absorb the nutrients you have been supplementing. For anyone with non-infective diarrhoea, constipation, nausea or vomiting, who is not pregnant, relief may be found in rosehips. These berries are astringent (they cause the contraction of skin cells and other body tissues) which results in a dry mouth. Benefits of astringent foods are that they tone up mucus membranes (which line the digestive tract), improving absorption and helping to bind loose stools. Other examples of astringent foods are grapes and green tea.


Rosehips have a long-held association with supporting people who are experiencing grief. The state of our gastrointestinal tract is strongly connected with our emotional state, as many people who have experienced grief or anxiety will know. Rosehips can help any anxiety-related diarrhoea or fatigue, with their astringent, anti-inflammatory properties. An informative article that covers the use of rosehips (and rose more widely) in supporting the emotional and physiological aspects of grief can be found here: https://theherbalacademy.com/rose-grief-support/


Once you have bitten into the rosehip shell, you want to open it out with your fingers and brush away the seeds and hairs, as the hairs can irritate the throat. What you are left with is the empty red case, ready to eat. I think they taste like apples.


Preparations of Rosehip

Rosehip oil is full of fatty acids that help to hydrate skin and form a protective barrier, sealing in moisture.


A rose petal (or rosehip) tincture or glycerite can support grief-associated emotions. To make a tincture, cover the petals in vodka in a jar and put the lid on. Shake daily, then strain out the petals after a moon cycle (about 27 days). Take drop doses as needed.


If you are prone to infections, you could take a rosehip syrup daily to prevent colds and flu. Rosehip syrup can be made by simmering them in water and adding half that amount of sugar. The mixture can then be stored in sterilised jars. Raw honey syrup is an alternative: blitz uncooked rosehips in a food processor and add them to a jar of honey. Leave them for a few weeks, shake out the jar and the honey will become runny from the rosehip juice. To finish, simply strain the syrup to empty out the rosehips. Drinking homemade rosehip tea will also strengthen the immune system against colds and flu.


Given the need to extract the seeds and hairs, a rosehip sauce is a possible, but rather labour-intensive exercise. Making a jelly is less work: once the rosehips are cooked and washed, they can be strained through a muslin before agar - a vegan equivalent of gelatine made from seaweed - is added.


Rose should not be used during pregnancy.


SLOE/BLACKTHORN

(Photo credit: Claire Jefferies)


In the centre of Rodden Meadow, next to the pathway, sits a blackthorn bush which is now in full fruit. Its fruit season is quite long, from September to December. Unlike hawthorns, which eventually become mushy and attract worms, sloes are astringent so the worms stay well away. Whereas rose hips can be harvested before or after the first frost (before is best for drying, after is best for a fresh syrup), sloes prefer to be harvested after the first frost. Before this, they are hard (and very bitter).


A safety note: If you get a puncture wound from a blackthorn and it is not treated, it can become systemic quite quickly because the thorns have fungus and algae on them. You can treat the wound with a strong antifungal or antimicrobial preparation from a medical herbalist - Pavla also suggests using propolis.


Once past their astringent stage early in the season, sloes have a rich almond sourness to them. Sloe berry jelly is a wonderful accompaniment to roast vegetables or game.


These blue berries are usually mixed with sugar to make a gin liqueur. For sore throats, sloe gin is absolutely medicinal and is also helpful for relieving diarrhoea (so don’t take it if you have a tummy bug as it will hinder the intelligent response of the body to try and rid itself of the infection). Interestingly, the early spring flowers have the opposite effect, as a relaxant and diuretic.


Blackthorn leaf is not edible but can be boiled in water for an acerbic mouthwash for ulcers. It can also be used topically on inflammatory skin conditions, such as acne.


Blackthorn should only be used short-term, and not in pregnancy or if breast-feeding.


GUELDER ROSE/CRAMP BARK

(or Snowball Tree due to its white viburnum Spring flowers)

Guelder Rose / Cramp Bark (Photo credit: Claire Jefferies)


Guelder Rose has nothing in common with the rose in terms of familial connection. The name may come from Elder because the little clusters of berries are a similar shape to the Elder.


This berry is another great candidate for a jelly, or jam, pudding, mousse or sorbet. It is best harvested after the first frost, when it is less bitter.


A note of caution: the berries should be cooked before consuming in order to avoid a sudden need for the bathroom!


The most striking aspect of Guelder Rose is its power as an antispasmodic. The bark and berries both act in this way but the bark is more potent. We have two kinds of muscles in the body: skeletal muscles (of the limbs and back that enable us to move) and the smooth muscles. These are in the heart, which enable it to contract, and in the guts. They are in the walls of the digestive tract (contracting to push food through the body) and also in the reproductive organs and airways. Guelder Rose, or Cramp Bark can be taken in a tincture to relax all of these.


We may not associate joint pain with muscles but if a joint is unstable, the surrounding muscles can end up working extra hard to stabilise it. This can result in painful spasms. Guelder Rose can also relax spasms of the uterus, easing period pains.


To prepare a tincture, gently shave small pieces of the outer bark from younger branches in Spring. Take bark from one side but not both. Never take bark from around the whole branch because the tree sends the sap up from the roots and if that is interrupted, that part will die. Next, cover the plant matter with vodka in a jar and leave for a few weeks. Shake it every now and again to make sure all of the plant matter is fully covered, then strain it. The liquid that is left has extracted lots of the medicinal properties of the plant. Take drops of up to 5ml about three times a day (or 2.5ml, six times) if you need it for pain. Alternatively, you could put the bark or berries in brandy, gin, or your tipple of choice!


HAWTHORN

(Photo credit: Claire Jefferies)


To conclude this piece on Autumn berries, we will now take a look at hawthorn berries, or haws. They have a tart, slightly sweet taste, again like an apple. In Spring, young leaves and flowers can be added to salads. Now is a great time to add some haws to brandy and leave them to steep until the drink is ready as a tipple for Christmas.


At Hejgro HQ, we are busily brewing up Apple and Hawthorn Jelly, ahead of the pre-Christmas rush.




Organic apple juice concentrate is used with agar to naturally sweeten and thicken this jelly.


The berries are handpicked and prepared, then slowly, gently infused with the other ingredients to result in a deliciously simple flavour with undertones of hawthorn. It is perfect in the colder months with turkey, chicken or nut roast, or you can have it year-round with pancakes, toast, cheese, cake or ice cream.


Medicinally, hawthorn is probably the most abundant and widely used herbal heart medicine in Europe. Whether you have a high or low heart rate, hawthorn can regulate it. As a diuretic, it allows the body to let go of excess fluids, relieving pressure on the heart. It also dilates the coronary arteries which supply blood to the heart muscle, so more blood and oxygen can get through, keeping the heart muscle healthy. Hawthorn also dilates blood vessels in the rest of the body and supports circulation to the periphery, which means it can be effective in warming cold hands and feet. Through all of these mechanisms it can reduce high blood pressure. People who are on medication for high blood pressure tend to find they need less if they use it in conjunction with hawthorn. If you do start to experiment, it is worth letting your GP know so they can monitor your blood pressure and spot if you need to reduce your heart medication.


Hawthorn is also a beautiful connective tissue tonic. Most of the tissues in the body are connective (in blood, fascia surrounding the muscles, and skin) and hawthorn supports the collagen in those. We can get very concerned about high levels of cholesterol in our blood. The health risk here is often not so much the level of it as whether it sticks to the inside of the blood vessel wall, potentially causing a blockage and leading to a heart attack. Hawthorn looks after the integrity of the blood vessel walls and reduces inflammation of the vessel lining, making it less likely cholesterol will stick.


Brandy would be a traditional alcohol for a tincture using hawthorn berries. Alternatively, they can be simmered (fresh or dried) for 30 minutes and then strained, for a relaxing herbal tea.



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