The Ber tree
V. RAMAKANTHA, Ph.D., is a former Indian Forest Service officer and member of the Green Initiative at the international Heartfulness Center, Kanha Shanti Vanam, India. Having spent most of his working life living in forests and jungles, in tune with the natural world, he shares his knowledge about some of the amazing medicinal plants of India, in this case the Ber tree.
Botanical Name: Ziziphus mauritiana Lam.
Common Names: Indian Jujube, Indian Plum, Chinese Date, Ber, Gangaregu, Badar
The Ber tree is a much branched, thorny deciduous tree with a spreading crown, growing to a height of about 45 feet. It is a hardy species with its origin in India. Its presence is unmistakable in the sandy soils of arid and semi-arid zones of India, and it is widely cultivated for its fruits. The dried fruits purify the blood and are used in the treatment of chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, diarrhea, pharyngitis, bronchitis, anemia, irritability and hysteria. The seeds are used in the treatment of insomnia and nervous exhaustion.
Mythology & History
Ber fruits have an association with Shabari, one of the extraordinary characters in the epic Ramayana. Shabari exemplifies the fact that the spiritual quest is not a prerogative of any sex, creed, class or community, but the birth right of all human beings.
Shabari was born into a hunter-gatherer community, and lived much of her life in Dandakaranya, the jungles of the Deccan Peninsula. At one moment in her life, she started observing in herself the loss of interest in anything other than the deep void engulfing her. To begin with, she developed an aversion to meat eating, and dropped the habit. There was a growing restlessness in her heart, and she did not know what would quench her thirst for the unknown. One fine day, with an overwhelming sense of dejection, she left her abode, and started wandering in the jungles, with no particular aim in life.
Having mastered the ability to eke out a living and sustain herself from the bounty of nature, she spent days alone, moving wherever her whim led. Fortunately for her, she reached the ashram of Matunga, a hermit who was seeking enlightenment. Sage Matunga could perceive Shabari’s noble intentions, the spiritual yearnings in the heart of this tribal woman, so he took her into his care .
Shabari spent several years serving Matunga and the other followers in the ashram. However, just as had happened to her life in her tribal hamlet, she remained dull in spirits, and the monotony haunted her. One day, sage Matunga summoned her and told her something that shook her to the core. He told her that his death was imminent. Second, he told her that Lord Rama, the avatar of that era, would pass by the ashram sometime in the future, and that meeting him would result in her discovering her life’s purpose.
Shabari’s miseries increased. She lost her mentor in Matunga and she had no idea who Lord Rama was. What would he look like? Would he come today, tomorrow, at all? How would she address him? Would he even notice her presence? As the cravings in her heart grew, doubts also assaulted her heart, “Will he understand my language? What shall I tell him? What shall I offer Him?” The dull heart of Shabari turned into a volcano.
Months passed, and eagerly Shabari awaited the arrival of Lord Rama. Years passed, and still there was no sign of Lord Rama. Shabari was growing old and frail, but there was no stopping her heart that craved the appearance of Lord Rama.
Lord Rama was exiled in the forests of India. The evil Ravana had abducted his wife Sita, and he was searching for her with a heavy heart. It was in those times that Shabari got to see her Lord. The cry of the heart of Shabari, the true seeker, brought Lord Rama to her door.
Shabari could easily see the Divinity in the human frame of Lord Rama. She fell at his feet, and her tears washed the feet of her Lord. When the mother in her woke up, she quickly gathered some Ber fruits. However, she couldn’t trust those fruits. Were they sweet or sour? So she tasted each one, and only when she was satisfied with the quality of each fruit, she fed them to Lord Rama.
Ultimately, Shabari was able to host Lord Rama in her own little way. Lord Rama’s heart was touched by her love, and he forgot his personal misery while in her company. Needless to say, Shabari was liberated during that incarnation.
Ber is one of those monumental trees that are unique to every historical Hindu temple. Ber fruits are offered to Lord Shiva, and in all Shiva temples, the fruit is given great importance, especially during Maha Shivaratri, the Hindu festival in honor of Lord Shiva.
The Ber tree is also considered sacred by Sikhs. It is often grown around gurdwaras, as Guru Nanak is believed to have received enlightenment beneath a Ber tree. Probably, the oldest Ber tree is at Amritsar in the Punjab. Known as “Dukh Bhanjani Beri,” it was already in existence when the fourth in the lineage of Sikh gurus, Shri Guru Ram Das, founded Amritsar city and the holy sarovar in the 16th century. This particular Ber tree is now over 400 years old and still fruiting! The devotees coming to the Golden Temple complex do not pluck the fruits, but sit under the tree in the hope of a fruit falling. It is believed that if you pray in front of this Ber tree and then take a holy dip in the Golden Temple waters, it will cure you of all your ailments and diseases.
Much is written about how the humble Ber fruits sustained certain historical figures in periods of their distress. The heroic deeds of Maha Rana Pratap Singh of Mewar, Rajasthan, remains etched in the annals of Indian history. The poet Kavi Bhushan lucidly described the struggles of Rana Pratap Singh against the Mughal emperor, Akbar. He described how the ousted king and his family faced the turbulence of their life, and how the humble Ber fruits in the forests of the Aravalli Hills provided nourishment to the royal family.
The Ber fruits vary greatly in size and shape. They are green at first, turning yellow or reddish as they ripen. The fruits are delicious eaten fresh or dried like raisins. They are also made into pickles and beverages. The raw seeds have a sweet flavor and are eaten as a snack.
Apart from being tasty, Ber fruits offer an effective herbal remedy for a wide range of ailments. In Ayurveda, the Ber plant parts are used for treating bleeding disorders, excessive thirst, and bronchial asthma. The dried fruits are considered to purify the blood, improve digestion, and offer relief from constipation. They are used to treat chronic fatigue, diarrhea and anemia. Ber fruits have anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce swelling in the joints.
Eating Ber fruit is also considered to be good for diabetes,
and Charaka has placed the Ber tree among
the group of plants that is a tonic for the heart.
Ripe Ber fruits help in quick healing of wounds, decrease swelling and bring back normal texture of the skin. Ber fruit powder with honey is applied on the face in the form of a face mask to attain a glowing skin, help manage skin infections, and promote healing of wounds (it should be rinsed off after four to five minutes).
Dried Ber fruits are good for maintaining bone density. Ber fruit powder is very useful for reducing the burning sensation and swelling of piles. Charaka Samhita, one of the principal contributors to Ayurveda, recommends a Ber decoction sitz bath for treating hemorrhoids.
Ber fruit powder and its leaves help to control hair fall. When applied on the scalp, it also promotes new hair growth and removes dryness.
Ber fruits, including the seeds, are considered to have sedative qualities and they are natural sleep inducers. They also provide relief from anxiety and cure hysteria. The fruits and seeds are also used to treat vomiting, flatulence, nausea, leprosy, and ulcers.
A paste made out of Ber leaves is applied externally to relieve burning sensations and fever. The leaf paste is also used to treat boils and abscesses. Ber leaves are also a part of Panchamla Thailam oil, used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Ber bark is used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, gingivitis and boils, and a decoction of Ber bark is used to treat bloating and abdominal distention. Ber roots are also used in case of fever, wounds, ulcers, etc.
Eating Ber fruit is also considered to be good for diabetes, and Charaka has placed the Ber tree among the group of plants that is a tonic for the heart.
What Does Science Know About the Ber Tree?
The presence of a diverse group of secondary metabolites found in the Ber tree makes it a remarkable medicinal plant. Ber fruits are very rich in vitamin C (188 to 544 mg per 100 gm pulp), B1 (thiamine) and B2 (riboflavin). They also have a high Vitamin P (bioflavonoid) content (354 to 888 mg per 100 gm pulp). The fruits are also filled with minerals like potassium, phosphorus, manganese, iron, and zinc.
In research published in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology, in 2009, extracts and fraction of the Ber plant have shown appreciable results in decreasing serum glucose level and other complications associated with diabetes. E.E. Jarald et al. support the inclusion of Ber plant parts in traditional anti-diabetic preparations. And according to a study published in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences in 2015, the fruit pulp can prevent diabetic neuropathy.
An article published in Phytochemistry in 1996 confirms the sedative, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, hypoglycemic, antibacterial and antifungal activities of Ber. The seed contains a number of medicinally active compounds, corroborating the traditional use of Ber plant parts in the treatment of palpitations, insomnia, nervous exhaustion, night sweats, and excessive perspiration. A study published in Pharmacognosy Reviews in 2015 attributes anti-cancer properties to Ber fruits.
The reddish wood of Ber is strong and durable, used in making agricultural implements, axe handles, toys etc. The Ber tree is a good source of wood fuel, and also high-grade charcoal. The young leaves can be cooked as a vegetable.
The leaves make for nutritious fodder, which are also used for growing tassar silk. It is a good host for the lac insect, which deposits an orange-colored resin that is collected and processed to make shellac. Ber bark, when pounded and mashed in water, yields brown and reddish dyes.
The Ber tree is an important source of nourishment for the endangered antelopes of India, like the Indian Gazelles and Black Bucks, while its fruits are relished not only by birds but a wide range of mammals, like jackals, wild dogs and honey badgers.
The fruits are very much liked by children. Delicacies are made from them, and a tea is made from a decoction of the fruit with cinnamon and ginger.
Ber is propagated through seeds, and through other vegetative means. Storing of seeds for over four months, or the scarification of seeds, helps better germination. To germinate, seeds need full sunlight. Ber grows in a wide variety of soils and withstands extreme temperatures, thriving under dry conditions. There are numerous cultivated varieties of Ber in India, so it is difficult to identify the original wild variety.
April 01, 2021
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April 01, 2021