Name: Blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum)
Otherwise known as: Quinsy Berries
Habitat: A deciduous shrub of the Grossulariaceae family, growing to about 2m in moist hedgerows in Europe and Asia. It has alternate three- to five-lobed leaves, which are coarsely toothed with little yellow glands on the underside. It produces racemes of small white flowers that transform into the familiar shiny black berries. The whole plant has a faint odour of cat urine.
What does it do: Blackcurrant has a long history as a tonic for children recovering from serious illness: Culpeper states ‘…as a restorative for the young and ailing it has few to equal its potency’.
The plant, which can still be found growing wild, is now cultivated as a source of syrups, jams and cordials. During WWII, when the British were unable to obtain fruits containing vitamin C, the government dietician Dr. Magnus Pike encouraged the population to grow blackcurrants, which were processed into syrups and distributed free of charge to children in schools.
Blackcurrants were introduced into the New World by the early settlers and were taken up by the native tribes to treat insect bites, and cure throat infections, hence its common name: Quinsy Berry.
However, the commercial growth of the plant was forbidden in the 1920s when it was discovered that White Pine Blister Rust was hosted by the plant, and transferred to the pine trees – thereby threatening the North American timber industry.
Blackcurrant contains flavonoids, tannins, volatile oil, anthocyanosides, malic and citric acids, potassium and vitamins C, B and F, as well as gamma-linolenic acid. This renders it anti-hypotensive, antimicrobial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, anti-diarrheoal, diuretic, a vermifuge and an immuno-stimulant for the adrenals.
It is used to treat colds, flu and sore throats; to lower high blood pressure, to strengthen weak capillaries; as a cure for eczema and other skin ailments; irritable bowel syndrome; renal colic; to expel intestinal worms; to increase secretion of cortisol by the adrenal glands, thereby stimulating the activity of the parasympathetic system. The gamma-linolenic acid helps reduce the inflammation caused by arthritis and lupus; it increases the production of prostaglandins which inhibit blood clotting that can cause strokes and heart attacks. The skin of the berry contains anti-oxidants, which are effective against diarrheoa brought on by E. Coli. Recent experiments indicate that this anti-oxidant property will inhibit skin ageing.
This is a very impressive little berry although it doesn’t smell very nice.
Apart from the above, it is an essential ingredient of cordials, jams, country wines, summer pudding, Crème de Cassis, and herbal teas.