Red Raspberry: Herbal Ally Strengthens and Tones the Heart, Respiratory Tract and Reproductive SystemMichael Vertolli, RH June 1, 2007
June is an amazing month in Ontario. It tends to be the time of year when everything is incredibly lush and at its greenest. Life radiates intensely, no matter where we look. As an herbalist, this is when harvesting herbs goes into high gear. The year begins early to mid April with the appearance of coltsfoot flowers (Tussilago farfara). The various spring herbs reach their peak harvesting period at a leisurely pace. Then in early June everything takes off. In most years, the more intensive harvesting period begins when raspberry begins to flower.
There are many species of brambles (Rubus) that grow in Ontario, but the one most used medicinally is American red raspberry (Rubus strigosus). European red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is not nearly as common; it occurs sporadically where it has escaped cultivation. Although these two species are very similar in appearance, it isn’t necessary to be able to distinguish them as their properties are almost identical.
Red raspberry most often grows in transition areas along the edges of forests and in fields that are gradually being filled in by shrubs and trees. It also grows in woodland clearings. Many other common members of this genus grow in similar habitats. American and European red raspberry can be distinguished from the other species by their characteristic red fruits, their size (as most of the other red-fruited species are very small), their many fine bristles (most other species’ have larger thorns similar to roses), and their flowers which have petals perpendicular to the disk rather than parallel (as in most species with regular, radially symmetrical, flowers).
In our area, red raspberry usually starts flowering in late May or early June, depending on the weather. Its main flowering period lasts three to four weeks, but it may produce flowers sporadically in July or August. The best time to harvest this herb is in the first two weeks of its flowering period, usually the first half of June. Dried raspberry leaves available commercially are usually harvested in the late summer when they are less aromatic, more astringent, and some important therapeutic properties are weaker.
Red raspberry usually has only one woody stem. Each spring when the buds open, they grow into small deciduous branches that die back in the fall. Each branch has leaves and the ones on the upper portion of the main stem also produce flowers. When we harvest red raspberry, we take one or two of the flowering green deciduous stalks per plant. If we dry the herb, we dry the whole stalk but remove the leaves and flowers when they are dry. The stalk isn’t used.
To make a tincture it is preferable to use the fresh herb. The leaves and flowers are immediately removed from the stalk to make the tincture. Although a tincture of the fresh leaves and flowers is preferred, the tea is also very effective.
As is typical of much of the herbal literature, if we look up red raspberry in popular herb books the information is somewhat unidimensional. Most books focus almost exclusively on its benefits for the uterus. However, it is a much more versatile herb.
When applied externally, red raspberry helps to reduce inflammation and promote healing. It will also reduce bleeding or oozing from wounds and sores. It can be used for wounds, abrasions, bites and stings, and various kinds of rashes. Taken internally, it also benefits the mucus membranes of the mouth, throat and digestive tract. It can be used for mouth ulcers, cankers, sore throats, ulcers, diarrhea, colitis, diverticulitis, and other inflammatory conditions. For these conditions it is best to combine red raspberry with a more mucilaginous herb such as marshmallow root or herb (Althaea officinalis), plantain herb (Plantago spp.), mallow herb (Malva spp.), flax seed (Linum usitatissimum), heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) or purple loosetrife herb (Lythrum salicaria).
When using red raspberry topically, use a poultice, compress or ointment of the dried leaf and flower. For inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract, an infusion (tea) is preferred. For all other applications it is best to use a tincture of the fresh leaf and flower.
Red raspberry is also beneficial for treatment of conditions of the upper respiratory tract, especially when characterized by thin watery mucus. It helps to reduce runny nose symptoms in head colds, sinus infections and hayfever. In infectious conditions this herb will also help to reduce fever. For sinus conditions and fever, red raspberry combines well with heal-all herb, black elder flower (Sambucus nigra), yarrow herb (Achillea millefolium), purple coneflower herb or root (Echinacea spp.), blue vervain herb (Verbena hastata), wild bergamot herb (Monarda fistulosa), and German chamomile flower (Matricaria recutita).
Red raspberry has important benefits for the health of our cardiovascular system. It improves peripheral circulation and heart function, reduces inflammation, and helps to heal blood vessels. It can be used topically or internally for conditions of the peripheral blood vessels such as bruising, varicose veins and hemorrhoids. It also benefits more serious conditions such as arteriosclerosis. For cardiovascular conditions, red raspberry is synergistic with heal-all herb, blue vervain herb, yarrow herb, motherwort herb (Leonurus cardiaca), hawthorn berry, leaf or flower (Crataegus spp.), lemon balm herb (Melissa officinalis), American bugleweed herb (Lycopus americanus), ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale) and turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa).
TONIC FOR FEMALE REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM
Red raspberry is best known for its tonic action on the uterus. What isn’t generally noted, however, is that it has a general tonic action on the entire female reproductive system. Part of the reason is that most commercially available raspberry leaf is picked too late in the season. The reproductive benefits of this herb are greatest when the plant is in flower.
Red raspberry is recommended for irregular periods, PMS symptoms, menstrual cramps, prolapsed uterus, excessive menstrual bleeding or mid cycle spotting, uterine hemorrhage in general, and the symptoms of menopause. It is also mildly tranquilizing and mood-enhancing, so it will provide some benefit for emotional symptoms such as anxiety, emotional sensitivity, mood swings and depression.
For treating conditions of the female reproductive system, red raspberry combines well with yarrow herb, blue vervain herb, wild bergamot herb, motherwort herb, lemon balm herb, ginger rhizome, English lavender spike (Lavandula angustifolia), chaste tree berry (Vitex agnus-castus), and partridgeberry herb (Mitchella repens). Raspberry will also temper the harshness of stronger female reproductive herbs.
Red raspberry is one of the very few herbs recommended for ongoing use during pregnancy. This herb can be taken throughout pregnancy. In fact, the earlier it is begun, the better the results. During the first trimester of pregnancy, it is best to combine 40-60% raspberry with 5-10% ginger rhizome and 30-50% of some other herb for flavour. The flavouring herb shouldn’t be too astringent, have a significant effect on the female reproductive system, or have any toxicity concerns. Best options include lemongrass herb (Cymbopogon citratus), hibiscus flower (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), rose hips (Rosa canina), anise seed (Pimpinella anisum) or spearmint herb (Mentha spicata). It is important that the third, flavouring herb is not consumed daily. It should be rotated between two or more of the above herbs. Although raspberry and ginger can be used on their own, it is preferable not to exceed 60% raspberry otherwise it may be too astringent for some.
Beginning with the second or third trimester, adding about 20% partridgeberry herb will make the formulation a bit stronger. If partridgeberry is included, the raspberry content should change to 40-50% and the flavouring herb to 20-30%. Maintain these proportions until about a week before the due date. At that point I recommend reducing the raspberry to 25-30%, adding 20% motherwort herb, and changing the flavouring herb to lavender spike or lemon balm herb. This final formulation can be taken until the onset of labour, through the labour, and for a couple of weeks following the birth of the child.
For most of the pregnancy a red raspberry formulation as indicated above should be taken two to three times per day. Beginning one week before the due date until the onset of labour, increase the dose to three to four times per day. During labour it should be taken every 60-90 minutes until the placenta is completely expelled. Then go back to three to four doses per day for another couple of weeks.
SPECIAL GUIDELINES FOR PREGNANCY
If red raspberry is used this way during pregnancy, it will: prevent or reduce the likelihood of a miscarriage; prevent or reduce the symptoms of morning sickness; increase the strength and coordination of uterine contractions and reduce pain during labour; facilitate expulsion of the placenta; reduce risk of post-partum hemorrhage; facilitate the return of the uterus to its normal size after birth; aid the initial production of milk; and prevent or reduce symptoms of post-partum depression.
Occasionally, women tell me that they used raspberry throughout their pregnancy but did not have a short, easy labour. On that note, I would like to point out that the use of red raspberry will generally make labour shorter and easier than it would have been had the herb not been used. But nothing can guarantee a short and easy labour. A healthy pregnancy and labour also requires a good diet and regular, but not too strenuous, exercise. Lots of walking is recommended and some light aerobic exercise. Yoga and tai chi are also excellent.
Anyone who wants to have a healthy pregnancy and give birth to a healthy child should be very careful about their dietary and lifestyle choices while pregnant. A growing body of research has demonstrated conclusively that poor dietary choices and exposure to alcohol, cigarettes, social and pharmaceutical drugs, and toxic chemicals during pregnancy can have a profound impact on the health of children throughout their life. Even one fast food meal can make a difference. To make matters worse, some of these health weaknesses can be passed on for many generations.
I recommend that any couple who would like to have children should clean up their diet and lifestyle, get lots of exercise and do a good herbal tonic program that includes deep detoxification over six months to a year prior to conception. This approach will also benefit those who have had difficulty getting pregnant. In fact, under the guidance of an experienced herbalist, a good herbal tonic program, including the use of reproductive tonics such as red raspberry, is effective for dealing with fertility issues.
All of my life I have experienced great joy from harvesting wild berries and other foods when I’m out in the wilderness. It is such a primal experience. I feel incredible gratitude to the Earth and plants, and a deep connection to this beautiful world that we live in. When we consider a common fruit like red raspberry, it is easy to take it for granted. Yet I am blown away by how much this plant has to offer as a medicine, as a food for both us and many wild creatures, and for the important role that it plays in the ecosystem where it lives. It’s an enlightening thing to contemplate while we’re enjoying some ripe berries this summer.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/