Black CurrantsKeith Stelling, MA, MNIMH, Dip. Phyt, MCPP (England) October 1, 2005
The Remarkable Deep Tissue Toxifier
“There is nobody who, having a garden, shouldn’t plant a great number [of black currant bushes] for the needs of their family,” wrote the Abbé P. Bailly de Montaran in 1712. And he added: “Black currant is a fruit that promotes long life in human beings.”
One of the most interesting things about herbal medicine is that you are continually discovering rare medicinal power among the commonest plants — many of them ones you have known since childhood. An exciting example of this and a plant with remarkable healing properties is black currant (Ribes nigrum).
A generation ago, lots more people had gardens and most grew and used black currants. You might remember the smell of black currant bushes at home or the sour taste of the currants in your grandparents’ garden. At one time the small bush (four or five feet high) produced the fruit that was made into jams and jellies by thousands of resourceful Canadian women. It was packed full of vitamin C for the long Canadian winter at a time when oranges were not available. Black currants were considered one of those standby household remedies.
According to Maude Grieve (the eminent English historian of herbal medicine and author of A Modern Herbal), writing in 1931, black currant jelly “is prized for its usefulness in colds and is both laxative and cooling. It should not be made with too much sugar or its medicinal properties will be impaired.” You can read Mrs. Grieve’s recipes for black currant wine and black currant jelly on the Internet at www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/mgmh.html.
A tablespoon of the jelly or jam was traditionally used for a sore throat (mixed into a cup of boiling water) and taken several times a day, drunk while hot. The effect was soothing and demulcent. The throat felt a little better each time. There are lots of tannins in black currants and they function in a bactericidal fashion by precipitating (shrinking) protein — bacteria are made of protein. Today we know that the bactericidal activity is also the result of anthocyanoids the fruit contains.
That’s why this pioneer home remedy worked at the start of a sore throat, because it checked the bacterial infection before it got down into the respiratory tract. Here is an example from our early history where an inexpensive home remedy was used effectively as preventive medicine. It provides a model for our present resource consuming health care system which waits until problems become chronic before treating them, at great cost to the patient’s energy and to the community’s resources.
But apart from a passing mention that the young roots of black currant bushes are used for dysenteric fevers in cattle and eruptive fevers in humans, black currant has been largely neglected in the English-speaking herbal tradition. But not so in France.
A FORMULA FOR MAINTAINING HEALTH IN OLD AGE
So important is the use of Ribes nigrum in French phytotherapy that Dr. Léon Binet, an often quoted authority at the beginning of the last century, made a point of indicating how strongly he felt about the benefits of using black currant on a regular basis — as part of a daily herbal regime.
He wrote that one of the best ways of maintaining health in old age was to: have an infusion of the leaves of black currant in the morning; an infusion of mint at noon; and, an infusion of linden flowers in the evening. (Ed: For more on Linden, see Vitality archives) Since Dr Binet lived to a ripe old age, it might not be a bad idea.
Modern French phytotherapy has looked at this plant primarily as a drainer of the tissues. This means that it is exceedingly useful anywhere in the body where the tissues have become congested: inflammatory, toxic, or auto-toxic conditions. These include arthritis, gout and prostatitis. It has also been used successfully to relieve skin problems.
HERBS DO THINGS DRUGS HAVEN’T YET INVENTED
Because they are a tissue drainer, black currant leaves have the ability, unlike any drug, to “drain” tissues especially those in the area of the kidneys and urinary tract and the liver. Tissue drainage was first observed by French phytotherapists in the second half of the 20th century. It allows the affected tissue to be cleansed internally by stimulating the body’s own internal restoration processes. This means that natural healing is encouraged by providing an ideal terrain, which also requires a balanced whole food diet and a lifestyle that keeps stress to a minimum and outdoor exercise plentiful.
One might well ask why is it so important to get rid of the congestion in the tissues? If congestion is allowed to remain in tissues, the life supply to the cells in the region is compromised. It also means that the toxic wastes of normal metabolism are accumulating in the area. Herbal medicine is able to relieve congestion in specific tissues by using external applications. “Drawing” poultices such as clay or chickweed draw out the metabolites of the inflammatory process. But botanical tissue drainers such as black currant leaves can work from the inside too, enhancing the body’s ability to rid itself of the encumbrance.
Now it is easy to understand why taking black currant leaves as an infusion (herbal tea) will help with a skin problem such as dermatitis, psoriasis or eczema. Skin problems always respond well to liver remedies and black currant leaves are widely used in France as a liver remedy. But black currant is doubly effective here because it is also a “tissue drainer.” This means that it reaches down into the tissues of the skin and extracts any toxic irritants which may be stored there. At the same time, it stimulates liver activity, making sure that these same toxins are carried right out of the body.
The fresh leaves are also a friend to our skin because they can be crushed and rubbed on insect bites as well as rubbed on the skin to prevent insects from biting. It seems that even waving whole branches of black currant bushes at flying insects will make them feel unwanted; however I wouldn’t advise testing this out in the face of a cloud of swarming wasps!
And menopausal symptoms are said to improve as a result of its hormone regulating power. Many women have experienced relief from menopausal symptoms using black currant leaf tea because it is a hormone regulator. It is in the same class as all the other useful botanical hormone regulators including English marigold (Calendula officinalis), red raspberry leaves (Rubus idaeus), and vervain (Verbena officinalis), which seem to be helpful for any woman. Rina Nissim calls black currant a hormonal regulator specific to the adrenals and the ovaries, as well as a decongesting agent, indicated for menopausal complaints. However, it would not be wise to take black currant or any other herb during pregnancy without the advice of a qualified herbal practitioner.
IMPROVES VENOUS CIRCULATION
There is also a circulatory role for black currant. It has been shown to have vasoprotective and anti-inflammatory properties or “so-called vitamin P activity.”1 Its traditional use as an antihypertensive has been substantiated in some studies. This activity is attributed to the presence of flavonoids, rutin and isoquertin,2 all substances that are widely prescribed by natural practitioners for treating breakdown of the venous system. Hence it is used in circulatory troubles of venous origin, i.e. varicose veins. Black currant leaves increase microcirculation (hence its use in capillary fragility), and improve visual acuity.3
Additional applications include: as a vermifuge for intestinal parasites, a remedy for diarrhea and dysentery, jaundice, and arteriosclerosis.
Black currant is rich in tannins — a favourite constituent of herbal medicine for treating wounds. This is because tannins pull together the two parts of flesh in a wound. In the old days they were called vulneraries. Black currant leaves are also bactericidal which allows them to be used as an infusion (tea) externally to treat abscesses, furuncles (boils), and contusions (scraped skin).
RECIPE FOR CASSIS
Jean Valnet spoke of “cassis” (black currant) as an eliminator of uric acid and urea. He also called it a renal (kidney) and hepatic (liver) stimulator. It has been used on this basis internally for arthritis, rheumatism, and gout and Valnet extends this use to kidney stones, oliguria (inability to urinate), and prostatitis.
You may have heard of the famous French Liqueur called cassis. It’s easy to make by soaking a kilo of very ripe black currants in three litres of brandy for a month. At the beginning you add two grams cinnamon and 12 grams cloves, though the measurements are not crucial. These two antibiotic herbs turn the final product into a powerful protective tonic to be reached for in times of plague and epidemic.
Traditionally sugar (750 g) is added, but you can substitute maple syrup at the time of drinking, in which case it is not necessary to add any sugar at all. You should shake the airtight glass container holding your cassis each day. The berries are strained off and the liquor bottled. This is a powerful medicine, and remember, it is mostly brandy so you don’t need much.
Black currant berries are ready to be picked in August. You will have sweeter currants if you let them ripen fully on the bushes. When a few of the berries begin to shrivel or drop, it is time to pick them all.
HARVESTING & DOSAGE
The best time for gathering black currant leaves is early in the spring before any insect damage has appeared.
To make an infusion of black currant leaves, a tablespoon (or 30-50 grams per litre) is added to a cup of boiling water. It is allowed to steep ten minutes. Three or four cups a day can be taken and it is a very agreeable infusion.
PLANT CURRANT BUSHES IN FALL OR SPRING
The best time of year to buy black current bushes is in the spring because that is the best time for transplanting. However, with extra care, bushes in reasonably good condition can also be planted in the fall. If you can find anyone who has a bush, you can start your own plants from clippings by dipping the end of a branch in rooting hormone and then sticking it firmly in the soil and keeping it damp for a few months. Keep the bushes well watered for a couple of months.
Currants need full sun. They like a little manure in the spring if there is any to spare but any garden soil will do. No further care is needed once they are established, though to improve fruit production, it is a good idea to trim out the old branches from time to time. Check at local nurseries to locate black currant bushes.
In summary, black currants are easy to grow and can be propagated easily from cuttings. They require little care and make a wonderful landscape ground cover that produces delicious fruit and useful medicine.
For more details on growing or propagating currant bushes, check these websites:
1. Lietti, A. et al. Arzneim. Forsch. 26 (5), 829 (1976).
2. Pham Huu Chanh, Ifansyah, N., Chahine, R., Mounayar-Chalfoun, A, Gleye, J., and Moulis, C. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Med. 22, 295-300, 1986.
3. Senchute, GV. & Boruch, IV. Rastit. Resur. 12, (1), 113 (1976)
Keith Stelling is a retired member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists of Great Britain and the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy (England). He has been researching rural community health issues including the adverse health and environmental effects of industrial wind turbines. See www.ontario-wind-resistance.org