By Audrey Stallsmith
Where 'mid the gorse the raspberry
Red for the gatherer springs;
Two children did we stray and talk
Wise, idle, childish things.
"Daisy" by Francis Thompson
It's a pity that the term "raspberry" has come to stand for "a derisive or contemptuous sound." For raspberries are one of the most delectable fruits available. I don't often see them on the produce shelves of supermarkets, though. And, when I do, they tend to be prohibitively expensive.
Raspberries have to be dead ripe to be sweet. Ripe, of course, means "soft," and soft fruit doesn't travel well. So you're probably most likely to find them at farmers' markets--or in your own back yard!
Black raspberries grew wild on our farm when I was a child. But, with scads of birds and five siblings competing for the bounty, I didn't see too many of them back then either. (Sigh.) Fortunately, we do have a few more heavily producing "tame" bushes now.
The raspberry's Latin name "rubus" means "red," since that seems to have been the most prevalent type in Europe. Gerard speaks of the berries ripening in autumn, while many of the modern red varieties bear an earlier crop as well.
"Raspberries," as Louise Beebe Wilder writes in A Fragrant Path, "are ripening their rosy thimbles before Strawberries have quite gone over and, almost, this exquisite berry, which Thoreau called the most innocent and simple of fruits, makes us forget our delight in the vivacious first fruit of the year."
The European red raspberry is still, as in Gerard's time, called rubus idaeus "of the mountaine Ida (in Greece) on which it groweth." He also knew the plant as raspis, framboise, and hinde-berry. The hardier U.S. reds are derived from rubus strigosus, a type whose name bears tribute to its "stiff bristles."
The frequency with which raspberries are mentioned in Russian novels bears testimony to their ruggedness. Red and yellow varieties, the toughest and most prolific, stand erect. The black (occidentalis or "western") and purple (neglectus or "overlooked") types, more vulnerable to weather and disease, arch and trail. According to folklore, persons passed under those arches might be miraculously healed of such various ailments as blackheads, boils, hernias, and rheumatism-not to mention being protected from evil spells!
In The Healing Herbs, Michael Castleman calls raspberry "the herb for pregnant women." In addition to alleviating nausea and labor pains, it may help prevent miscarriage, since it contains a uterine relaxant.
Raspberry is, like blackberry, astringent. So it, too, will cure diarrhea--in a much more pleasant manner than any over-the-counter remedy! A vinegar prepared from the berries or a tea brewed from the leaves also makes a good gargle for sore mouth or throat. Wilder writes that "raspberry vinegar was made in every home in my youth and, when diluted with water and finely crushed ice, is a most refreshing and innocuous summer drink."
Raspberries are also reputed to reduce blood sugar and help prevent cancer. And, of course, they are often the delicious main ingredient in jellies, pies, etc.
They seem to be especially popular when combined with chocolate in one form or another. As my siblings and I can testify, raspberries are excellent eaten right off the bramble too, provided you can get to them before your greedy relatives do!
Image is from Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.