The crowberry – fast acting or a blockage

Flanders Moss NNR

It is the time of year when heather (Calluna vulgaris) or its other name ling, catches the eye. The purple, frothy mass gives a distinctive end of summer hue to the moss surface – and the smell is distinctive as well.

But there is another plant out on the moss, less common and patchy found that is a close relative of the same heather family (Ericaceae) but has some very clear differences – the crowberry. This attractive plant has very similar stems and leaves to the other heather relatives, the cross-leaved heath and the bell heather but the big difference is that it has large, shiny black berries that stand out beauifully on the bog surface at this time of year against the sphagnum and sundew.

These berries look like they could taste fantastic but having tried one I can report they are extremely sharp. Apparently raw they taste better when subjected to a heavy frost but other sources report them as being “barely edible”. Jams and pies are probably the best destination for them, mixed in with other berries. They have been described as a “super food” – like similar berries, black currents and blue berries, and are good for you as they have high levels of anti oxidants, fibre and Vitamin C and K.

There seems to be a bit of misinformation out there about these berries because I was told that they used to be used as a purgative – i.e. to clean out the system. I was also told that they were so fast acting that it was best if you dug the hole first.

But in carrying out further desk-based study I found a reference stating that they were used to treat diarrhea and if too many were eaten then they caused constipation. Well one must be true but I think I will wait for others to carry out the definitive practical research.

To support the constipation theory crowberries have an almost near circumboreal distribution in the northern hemisphere – they are found almost completely round the northern half of the planet. Researchers have suggested that this spread is due to long-distant bird migrants carrying the seeds inside them. Obviously a purgative effect would drastic reduce the distribution on the plant whereas a blocking effect would enable great distance traveled before expulsion! I wonder if any practical experiments have been done on this. I might even try some on my hens.

I love finding out more about these plants on the bog.

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