When driving down the highway, on the way home from some Christmas shopping in Ottawa last week, I noticed large shrubs along the side of the road, here and there. Their branches were densely covered with…something. Something pale orange. When I pulled off the highway at my exit, I was pleased to see there were a few of the mystery shrubs at a spot where I could safely pull over and take a closer look at them. Up close, the plants were even more eye-catching, with many pale orangey-brown berries tightly packing the stems. I snapped off the end of one stem to take home as a sample. The berries were soft and easily crushed. They gave off a pungent odour very much like cider vinegar. I couldn’t recall having seen any bushes quite like these before, and I headed home to fire up Google for an identification search.
They proved to be Sea Buckthorn shrubs. Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is native to Europe and Asia. [Incidentally, sea buckthorn is not related to European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica).] About 90% or about 1.5 million hectares of the world’s sea buckthorn resources grow in China, where the plant is exploited for soil and water conservation purposes. Such plantings can yield up to 5 tons of berries per hectare, although it is estimated that a carefully planned orchard could yield up to 10 tons. The berries are among the most nutritious and vitamin-rich fruits known. Sea buckthorn berries, including their seeds, contain large amounts of Vitamin C and essential oils. They are also high in globulin and albumin proteins, carotene, Vitamin E and fatty acids. The berries are too acidic to eat raw, but are used for juice, jams and other food products. They are also used as a source for ingredients in cosmetic products and nutritional supplements, and different parts of the sea buckthorn plant have been used as traditional therapies for diseases.
Sea buckthorn does have some benefit as food for wildlife in its native range, but I didn’t come across any research on their usefulness to North American wildlife. Presumably, native birds and other berry eaters would be able to benefit from sea buckthorn berries. Because of the absence of an abscission layer, the berries stay on the branches through the winter, endowing them with ornamental value. Sea buckthorn is able to thrive in poor soils where other plants might not because it is a nitrogen fixer. It sounds like a wonder-plant, but it is not without some disadvantages. For one thing, the berries are difficult to harvest. The thorns that grow along the branches, and the small size of the berries make them difficult to pick.
Sea Buckthorn has been grown experimentally in Canada, especially on the prairies, where it has been used in shelter belts. Not surprisingly, it is starting to garner some attention as a potential invasive species problem. The Alberta Native Plant Council listed it as invasive in 2000, with the comment that it “has established extensive monocultural stands on gravel and sandbars along streams.”
How the sea buckthorn I spotted came to be along the highway here, I don’t know, but suspect that it has been planted experimentally for erosion control. It is able to withstand saline conditions, so it may be better able to survive road salt than native shrubs.