By: Lewis and Nancy Hill
Among the recent horticultural arrivals from Russia and central Asia is the seaberry, also known as sea buckthorn. There, it is prized for both its ornamental value and its edible berries. This hardy, carefree deciduous shrub makes excellent hedges and wildlife habitats, and its bright yellow-orange to red berries are particularly high in vitamin C. Although the fruit, with its tart astringency, may not be ideal for snacking, it is delicious in juices and jams. Like our native cranberry, the exotic seaberry requires a bit of work to render it sweet, but its refreshing taste and health benefits are worth the effort.
We first grew seaberry (Hippophae rhamnoides) a few years ago, when we planted 'Hergo', a female variety, and an unnamed male seedling, then pretty much forgot about them. One fall day a few years later, we noticed that the female, about 3 feet tall, was loaded with bright orange berries. After sampling the fruits, we decided that although the plants were attractive, the fruits seemed far too acidic to have much culinary potential.
The shrubs, which reach 6 to 18 feet when mature, would be worth planting solely for their shiny, narrow, green-gray leaves. Seaberries are also excellent conservation plants, providing shelter for small animals and birds, fixing nitrogen in the soil, and preventing erosion with their strong root systems which spread by suckers. The shrubs have few pests and are suited to USDA Hardiness Zones 2 through 9.
There are other species of Hippophae, but H. rhamnoides is the only one commercially available at this time. Wild seedlings of Hippophae are very thorny, but German and Russian varieties of H. rhamnoides such as 'Byantes', 'Frugana', 'Hergo', 'Leikora', and 'Russian Orange' are less thorny and yield larger, better quality fruits.
Not Just a Pretty Shrub
The berries ripen in late summer forming large, tight clusters along the branches; they last into the winter and are lovely in floral arrangements.
Although we had dismissed any culinary possibilities for the fruits, our German neighbor became very excited when she spotted the plants. She explained that the berries are healthful and their flavor is easily enhanced by juicing and sweetening them. Then she immediately ordered some plants for her garden.
After some research, we found that the seaberry is indeed a healthful fruit, containing seven times the vitamin C of lemons. Its use as a general health restorative dates back to the time of Alexander the Great, when his soldiers added seaberry leaves and fruit to horse fodder to maintain the animals' health and add luster to their coats. Hence, the botanical name originates from the Greek words for horse (hippo) and to shine (phaos).
Russians have realized that seaberries are also tasty and versatile. Sauce, jam, juice, wine, tea, candy, and even ice cream are made from the berries--which they call "Siberian pineapple"--although the flavor is more citruslike.
The Chinese add the leaves, bark, and berries to more than 200 food and medicinal products used to treat ailments such as ulcers and eye and heart problems.
We've found the best use for the berries is to make a refreshing juice (see recipe at end of article).