THE 2020 HERB OF THE YEAR
GENUS: RUBUS
THE BRAMBLING CANEBERIES OF THE ROSE FAMILY

By Pat Kenny

The scientific classification is as follows:
Order: Rosales
Family: Rosaceae
Subfamily: Rosoideae
Genus: Rubus

The genus name Rubus is said to be the classical Latin name for blackberry. It is akin to ruber (red) and may refer to the reddish color of the mature canes of some species. The stems of Rubus plants are also referred to as “canes,” so the term “cane fruit” or “caneberry” refers to any Rubus species or hybrid that is commonly grown with supports, such as wires or a trellis. The Rubus fruit, often called a “bramble” fruit, is an aggregate of drupelets, each having its own pistil, ovary, and seed; because of this aggregate characteristic, Rubus berries are sometimes called “false” fruits. Common conventional species include blackberry, raspberry, dewberry, thimbleberry, and salmonberry; common hybrids are loganberry, boysenberry, and marionberry. Rubus fruits span a wide range of colors and tastes: colors range from yellow‐orange, pink to bright red, purple to black; flavors range from sour to sweet. Rubus is generally native to Europe, Asia, and the Americas, with relative species in other continents as well.

As part of the rose family, Rubus is a diverse group of herbaceous and woody plants. Similar to roses, most Rubus plants have woody stems with thorns, prickles, bristles, and gland‐tipped hairs, although some are thornless. While some species have simple leaves, some species have the familiar characteristics of alternate compound leaves, 3‐7 leaflets, and often stipules. In late spring/early summer, white 5‐petaled flowers with many stamens attached to a calyx appear. The flowers are variously described as regular, radially symmetrical, divisible into equal parts at two or more planes. The flowers of Rubus floricanes are produced on secondary shoots, and the majority of flowers are produced terminally on these shoots, but with branching below the terminal clusters. Sepals of the blackberry group fold down, whereas those of the raspberry stretch out. All Rubus have superior ovaries. The aggregate fruit of the raspberry and its relatives comes off the convex receptacle, or “plug”, when picked and is therefore hollow.

Rubus befuddles most botanists because it hybridizes so easily, resulting in a large and diverse genus with 250 to 700 species. There may be hundreds of blackberry species, and comparatively fewer raspberry species. Some of the more common species include: R. allegheniensis (Allegheny blackberry), R. fruticosus (common blackberry), R. occidentalis (black raspberry), R. idaeus (red raspberry ), R. chamaemorus (cloudberry, baked‐apple berry), R. flagellaris (northern dewberry), R. trivialis (southern dewberry), R. ursinus (trailing black‐ berry), and R. odoratus (purple‐flowering raspberry). One species, R. sanctus (holy bramble), is associated with the burning bush that appeared to Moses in the Bible. One that grows in a monastery on the Sinai Peninsula is reputed to be the original plant, a living religious relic! In addition to the true species plants, cultivation of Rubus by humans reportedly began in the 1500”s, and numerous hybrids have been developed.

Depending on the species/cultivar, flowers and fruit grow on either the first or second year’s canes. In general, plants are insect pollinated. However, some are apomictic (i.e., able to produce seed without fertilization). Seed is dispersed by birds and other animals. Some Rubus plants grow near the ground; others can reach up to 14 feet. Individual Rubus plants tend to grow in a vase‐like form, with canes arching up then down toward the ground. Many species reproduce vegetatively by tip‐rooting; some propagate by suckering from stolon runners or rhizomes. Some species have been described as scrambling bushes becoming thickets, whether growing in the wild, dry fields, clearings, or gardens, and some may be classified as invasive. Well‐known invasive species include the Himalayan blackberry (R. armeniacus) and wineberry (R. phoenicolasius).

The thorny arching branches of wild Rubus protect young trees from hungry deer and farm animals. It is also said that caneberry was planted by First Nation people to deter intruders; at the same time, the canes provide small mammals with shelter and protection from predators. Rubus berries were also used as food and medicine by Native Americans and the colonists. Roots were chewed for coughs and toothaches. The astringent leaves and roots were decocted and drunk for sore throat, dysentery, diarrhea, stomachache, and tuberculosis. Decoctions of Rubus with other tonic plants were made for “ladies who are run down from period sickness.” Rubus leaves continue to be used as an ingredient in herbal teas. A wound wash was used for pimples and blackheads, and to shrink hemorrhoids. In Hawaii, the ashes of some species have been used with poi or potatoes to stop vomiting and used with papaya for heartburn.

Modern‐day folk uses continue to value the plant’s phytochemicals, such as tannins that may stop bleeding by causing tissues to constrict, and that may be antimicrobial. Aside from the medicinal and nutraceutical qualities of Rubus, its culinary and flavoring uses are well‐known and plentiful. The berries are eaten fresh, used as an ingredient in butters, salads, salsas, or fruit sauces, or cooked into jellies, seedy jams, syrups, pies and cobblers, or used in beverages, cordials, and wines. Rubus is certainly among the most versatile and delicious herb!

Rubus Photos by John Winder and Pat Kenny


REFERENCES

Ballick, Michael J., Rodale’s 21st Century Herbal, Rodale Press, New York, 2014.

Hummer, K. E., and J. Janick, Rubus Iconography: Antiquity to the Renaissance,
U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University,
https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/rubusicon.pdf.

Moerman, Daniel E., Native American Ethnobotany, Timber Press/Portland OR, 1998.

Wikipedia, Rubus, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubus

Zomlefer, Wendy B., Guide to Flowering Plant Families, University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

 


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