- Black Crowberry
Black crowberry (botanical name Empetrum nigrum) is a fruit bearing undersized shrub that is found growing in various places in the northern hemisphere. While the fruits of this plant are consumed raw or after cooking, the plant itself is utilized for a number of therapeutic purposes.
This plant is an evergreen low arched, creeping shrub having small branches that bear copious leaves. Interestingly enough, the branches of Empetrum nigrum possess glands. Usually, the black crowberry plant grows up to a height of just 15 cm (6 inches). The branches of this herb grow up to a length of 40 cm. Often it is seen that this plant forms a compact mat on the ground.
Black crowberry produces deep green leaves whose shape may either be elliptic or linear. The leaves of Empetrum nigrum are small and tough (ericoid) and measure anything between 4 mm and 8 mm in length. On their under surface the leaves have adjusted in such a manner that they help to diminish evaporation of water through transpiration when the climatic conditions are harsh. Another notable characteristic of the leaves of this herb is that they come with revolute edges that make them appear as tubes or needles. Four leaves of Empetrum nigrum are arranged like a whorl down the length of strong stems that are prostrate.
The flowers of crowberry plants appear during the period between May and June. The small flowers, which are hardly noticeable, may either be unisexual or bisexual and they do not have any petal. The purple to purplish hued flowers appear in the leaf axils. The male flowers come with three stamens that lengthen externally and they have three sepals and three petals and in several instances the petals are absent. Bees, moths, butterflies and flies pollinate the flowers of Empetrum nigrum.
The flowers give way to fruits, which are basically black succulent drupes measuring anything between 6 mm and 9 mm across. Each fruit of black crowberry encloses about 6 to 9 nutlets that bear resemblance to seeds. The seeds of this plant start maturing during September. Although the fruits are edible, they do not have any taste – in other words, they are bland.
Black crowberry plants have a robust and well-built primary root. This root grows into a shallow root arrangement with the growth of the plant. In fact, as the plant grows, the primary root develops numerous lateral roots.
Various animals ranging from capercaillies to robins love to eat crowberries. In fact they are also enjoyed by other animals including bears and stoats. Since the berries of this herb remain viable and fresh beneath the snow all through the winter months, hence they are a vital nutrition for the migrating birds prior to the emergence of hordes of insects with the onset of summer. In addition, since ages people residing in the extreme north have been using their local harvest of crowberries as a supplement to their diet.
Aside from being edible, the berries as well as the stems of Empetrum nigrum have been utilized for coloring cloth and leather. On the other hand, the sprigs have been used by people in the form of brooms. Moreover, the sprigs can also be employed in the form of fuel. Earlier, berries of Empetrum nigrum were sold as an ingredient for making wine and juice.
Fruits, stems, leaves, roots, branches.
Almost all parts of the black crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), including the leaves, stems, fruits, branches and roots, are used for various purposes. All of them are said to possess therapeutic properties that aid in treating various health conditions, including diarrhea, urine problems, cold and cough.
The fruits of Empetrum nigrum plants possess astringent, diuretic and ophthalmic properties.
The leafy branches of black crowberry have been traditionally used for treating fever, especially in children. It is generally employed in the form of a diuretic. In addition, these branches along with their leaves have also been employed to treat problems related to the kidneys. An infusion or decoction prepared from the stems of the herb or even the cooked berries have been employed for treating diarrhea. Similarly, a decoction prepared from the leaves and stem of the plant and blended with Hudson Bay tea as well as the immature tips of spruce tree has been employed for treating colds. Even a decoction prepared using the roots of black crowberry has been employed in the form of eyewash to get rid of unwanted growth.
In the sub-Arctic regions, people have been using Empetrum nigrum as a vital addition to their diet, such as the Inuit as well as the Sami. Members of the Tanaina or the Dena’ina community basically harvest the berries for eating and occasionally for storing in large quantities for the harsh winter months. Many people prefer consuming the berries blended with oil or lard. Generally, the fruits of black crowberry are harvested during the fall. However, if they are not collected, they will remain on the plant and can be harvested during the ensuing spring. The berries remain viable when stored in a cool place even with no special arrangement. People belonging to the Inuit community as well as the Native Americans consume these fruits mixed with other berries, particularly blueberries.
In Dena’ina medicine, the leaves as well as stems of the Empetrum nigrum plant are employed for treating diarrhea and other problems related to the stomach. The leaves and stems are either soaked in hot water or boiled and the resultant liquid is strained and taken orally to treat these conditions. According to the Dena’ina plant lore, the root of black crowberry is also employed to get rid of unwanted growth on eyes as well as to cure eye sores. This is particularly true in the Upper and Outer Inlet regions of Lake Clark. In addition, people in this region also boil the roots of Empetrum nigrum and wash their eyes with the resultant liquid after it is strained and cooled.
In Labrador, people call the fruits of crowberry plants as “blackberry”. They generally burn the leaves and stems of the plant for smoking fish, especially salmon, Artic char and sea trout.
Although the fruits of black crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) are basically tasteless, they can be consumed raw or after cooking. The flavour of these fruits develops after the winter months have passed. The fruits of black crowberry are generally used for making pies, beverages as well as preservatives. The tender twigs of Empetrum nigrum are used to prepare an herbal tea.
Traditionally, these berries have been consumed with dried and salted fish, sour milk, reindeer milk, and roe. In the northern hemisphere, these fruits are known to be effective in putting off development of scurvy.
Habitat and cultivation
Black crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) shrubs can be found growing naturally in various regions of the northern hemisphere, including northern Europe, Canada (Newfoundland), Alaska, the Yukon Territory, Greenland and Eurasia. In addition, this herb is also found growing in the Falkland Islands. In fact, the black crowberry is extremely tolerant of various inhospitable weather conditions, including drought.
Empetrum nigrum plants are found growing abundantly in conifer forests; shrub habitants, open muskegs and even along shorelines. These plants are well equipped to survive in cold and harsh climatic conditions. As this plant is found growing in the severely cold Tundra regions or in other places having similar climatic conditions, especially severe cold temperatures, Empetrum nigrum is frequently exposed to strong and cold winds, fog as well as freezing temperatures.
Black crowberry plants thrive well when they receive full sunlight along with sporadic shady conditions. These plants are able to survive in a minimum temperature of an amazing -43°F. At the same time, Empetrum nigrum plants can endure drought well. The morphology (form and structure) of black crowberry plants is greatly dependent on the temperature as well as weather conditions in the neighbourhood. The black crowberry grows an elaborate branching system when it is grown in locations where they are exposed to strong winds. On the other hand, the plant develops bushes and branching shoots when it is grown in arid areas. When grown in damp sites, the Empetrum nigrum plants display very less branching.
The Empetrum nigrum is a calcifuge plant. In other words, the black crowberry plants cannot survive in calcareous soil. Usually, you will not find them growing in alkaline soils. On the other hand, these plants can be grown easily in soils that are rocky and sandy peats. They also grow well in glacial till and alluvial deposits. Generally, black crowberry plants are found growing naturally in stagnant soil surfaces as well as soils rich in minerals – soils that contain plenty of nutrients, but do not have much nitrogen. In fact, the texture of the soil should always be anything between medium and fine.
Before concluding, it is important to mention that the calcifuge plants can thrive in a soil pH that ranges between 4.3 and 7.8.
Chemical analysis of Empetrum nigrum berries has revealed that they mainly enclose water. While the vitamin content of these fruits is low, it also does not contain volatile liquids in enough concentration. As a result, these fruits are nearly odourless. Even the acidity of these berries is less compared to the berries usually found on various other plants in forests. In addition, they almost do not contain any benzene acids.
Collection and harvesting
The fruits of black crowberries (Empetrum nigrum) are generally harvested during the period between August and September when they are completely ripe. One can also harvest these berries during the onset of winter or in the beginning of spring in the following year.