Sandy’s Garden ... Crowberry

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

At the beginning of August, we … Ailsa and I … spent a most enjoyable weekend with Italian friends in Stonehaven.

I write ‘Italian’, but they are more Scottish than many a Scot despite being Italian nationals; and it is to our nation’s shame that our politicians are making them feel unwelcome in their adopted home. Be that as it may, they took us to visit Forvie National Nature Reserve midway between Aberdeen; and what a wonderful place it is.

The Reserve’s splendidly informative leaflet includes a picture of the crowberries which are to be found there in the early autumn, although the bushes are, of course, present all year round. Crowberry bushes grow well in acidic soils in shady, moist areas. They can be cultivated for their berries or the low-growing bushes can be grown as ground cover or as ornamental plants in rock gardens. It may come as no surprise that, since Empetrum nigrum … its proper botanical name … likes to grow in the same soils and the same sorts of locations as heather, it is a member of the family Ericaceae, which we usually call the heathers.

Empetrum nigrum … the first part of its name, Empetrum, comes from two Greek words, en meaning ‘on’ and petros, ‘rock’ while nigrum is the Latin word for ‘black’ and refers to the colour of the berries … is found pretty well everywhere throughout northern Europe, northern Asia and North America, most commonly on hillsides although … as its presence alongside the sea at Forvie shows … it will thrive at low levels too. The near circumboreal distribution of crowberry in the northern hemisphere is attributed to the berries being eaten by migratory birds which deposit seeds in their droppings far from where they were eaten. (‘Circumboreal’ is a wonderful American word meaning “of, or having to do with, plants and animals inhabiting boreal regions of North America and Eurasia,” according to Collins English Dictionary. And ‘boreal’ means “of the north or northern regions.”)

One of the specialist nurseries which advertise crowberry plants for sale describes Empetrum nigrum as a “native creeping evergreen with pink flowers and black berries, tasty in a mixed wild fruit salad. Prefers acidic conditions. Plant £3.90.” In actual fact, the small berries are mostly water and are of limited nutritional value, although I learn, from the internet, that in subarctic areas they were vital addition to the diet of the Inuit and the Sami peoples, who often mixed them with other berries. American housewives, aware that cooking crowberries enhances their flavour, use them to make jam and as a filling in fruit pies.

Herbalists believe that the crowberry plant can be beneficial in treating a wide range of problems, including kidney problems, dysentery, acne and stomach problems such as constipation; for treating fevers and epilepsy; and as an eye wash. Some enthusiasts also claim that crowberries are useful in assisting weight loss and in combating the characteristic facial signs of advancing age. As ever, gentle reader, I am not endorsing any of these claims; and I am assuredly not recommending that you experiment to find out what different parts of the crowberry plant may do for you. What is certain, however, is that the boiled juice of crowberries has been used as a food and textile dye since time immemorial.

So, should you happen to visit Forvie National Nature Reserve, look out for trailing plants about 25cm … say, 10 inches … tall with leaves about 1cm … ½ inch … long which curl backward until the sides meet; in spring and early summer there will be very small purple flowers; and in the autumn you’ll find black, juicy, rather acid berries. Enjoy!