Set the Table with Seaberries
Written onMay 23 , 2014
I’d never actually seen a sea buckthorn plant or eaten any of its berries until I moved to Vermont. Already familiar with sea buckthorn in my skincare products, I was inspired to learn more. And when I did: zing, zest, tang! I was struck by sea buckthorn berries’ complex, passionfruit, citrus-like flavor. It was like nothing I’ve tasted.
Palatable when made sweeter, sea buckthorn has been called a superfood and a miracle berry, with the potential to match pomegranate and acai’s popularity among health devotees. Native to Eurasia, and also known as seaberry, sallowthorn, and sandthorn, sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) has been used as a food and a pharmaceutical for centuries, with medicinal records of it dating to as early as 800 AD. With nearly unparalleled nutritional and environmental benefits, the ancient plant has long been popular in countries such as Russia, China, and Germany.
Over the last decade, it has gained attention from niche growers, health advocates, and even culinarians in Vermont. Elmore Roots Nursery (Wolcott), Vermont Edible Landscape (based in Jericho), and the Vermont Seaberry Company (Huntington) are just a few businesses pioneering sea buckthorn production in Vermont. It was even planted on the Vermont State House lawn in 2009 when an edible garden was put in. But sea buckthorn is not widely known in the United States, and how it will fit into Vermont’s working landscape over time is yet to be determined.
It’s easy to understand why sea buckthorn’s agricultural characteristics are appealing to growers. With only some exceptions, like cranberry and crab apple, sea buckthorn’s level of hardiness is rare in fruiting plants. Sea buckthorn and its berries can withstand extreme ranges of temperatures—down to -40 °F. “They wouldn’t mind a year that would take out annual vegetable crops in Vermont,” says permaculturist Ben Falk of Whole System Design in Moretown, the largest producer of sea buckthorn in the state. “No plant that I know of is as climate adaptable, in that it thrives in south central Italy and also thrives in northern Canada.”
What’s more, sea buckthorn is able to fix nitrogen, essentially producing fertilizer for itself and the plants around it; unsusceptible to most pests and diseases, meaning it can grow easily without pesticides; salt and drought tolerant; resistant to erosion because of its strong root system; and able to grow quickly, making it an excellent protective hedgerow and windbreak for farmland and farm animals.
It is also sought out for its high nutritional and medicinal value, which mirrors its impressive environmental attributes. It is rich with flavonoids, lycopene, carotenoids, and phytosterols and is high in vitamins A, C, E, and K, and omega fatty acids, including many that are rare in the plant world e.g., omega 7. High in antioxidants, sea buckthorn berries contain seven times more vitamin C than lemons. And with tissue-regeneration properties, the oil from sea buckthorn seeds can treat a variety of skin diseases and injuries. Cosmonauts, for example, use it for radiation burns. Chinese healers add leaves, bark, and berries to more than 200 food and medicinal products to treat ailments such as ulcers and eye and heart problems. It is even being investigated for its ability to prevent or reverse the growth of cancers.
Sea buckthorn can also be an inspiring culinary ingredient. Called the “Siberian pineapple” in Russia, sea buckthorn has berries that have long been used in sauces, jams, juice, wine, liqueur, candy, and ice cream. In the U.S., people are enjoying its distinct flavor in vinegars, salsa, and even beer. In Vermont, sea buckthorn is starting to appear on menus, including at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, where I ate sea buckthorn for the first time as frosting atop a chocolate beet cupcake. (Full disclosure: I work at Shelburne Farms, where we recently started experimenting with sea buckthorn as a crop.)
But sea buckthorn’s non-native status is of concern. Other non-native species introduced to Vermont, such as Japanese knotweed and barberry, have multiplied within our ecosystems at alarming rates. While sea buckthorn should not be confused with the pernicious common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), there is still reason to be wary. Chuck O’Neill, senior extension associate and coordinator of invasive species programs at Cornell University, points out that sea buckthorn has the generic capabilities of any highly invasive plant: the ability to grow in highly erodible, low-nitrogen soil, which gives it an advantage over native plants; possession of a rhizome shoot system that allows it to spread and potentially compete against plants that do not sucker; rapid speed of growth; and resilience to wind and cold.
Sea buckthorn is on Environment Canada’s invasive alien species list, although it’s not on the noxious weed lists of the United States Department of Agriculture or Vermont Agency of Agriculture. O’Neill cautions that not being on a list doesn’t mean much, since assessments are constantly growing, shifting, or shrinking. But likewise, being officially invasive in Canada does not necessarily mean sea buckthorn will become an invasive in the United States. “There are lots of plants out there, listed by other states, countries, federal governments, that are not on our lists specifically, says Tim Schmalz, plant industry section chief at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. “What makes it a noxious plant in one area might not mean it’s a noxious plant somewhere else.”
Horticulturalist and Vermont Garden Journal host Charlie Nardozzi has an explanation for why sea buckthorn has not yet become a problem in Vermont and why it might remain benign: Being shade intolerant, sea buckthorn seedlings would have a difficult time thriving as an understory plant in Vermont’s woodlands. In addition, while mature plants are drought resistant, sea buckthorn seedlings require consistent moisture, which makes it hard for them to get started on their own. For those considering growing sea buckthorn, Charlie recommends planting it somewhere where shoots can be cut back and mowed easily. Since sea buckthorn is fairly new to New England, abandoned farm fields and other open, sunny places should be monitored for new seedlings over the coming years, as invasive traits can become pronounced over time.
Thus, it is prudent to remain cautious, with fingers crossed that sea buckthorn remains unproblematic in our working landscape as we continue learning about growing it, harvesting it, and incorporating it into our medicine cabinets and culinary creations. And, if sea buckthorn does become invasive—which would be highly undesirable—at least we’d be left with nitrogen-rich soil and a tasty, nutritious experience while eradicating it.
Photo by Vera Chang