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.
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).
Seaberries are easy to grow and require little space. Because male and female flowers grow on separate plants, you need at least one of each sex to produce fruit. Flowers are pollinated mostly by wind, so space plants closely: 6 to 8 feet apart in rows, or 3 feet apart as a hedge. One male (distinguished by its larger flower buds) can pollinate five or six females.
Plant seaberries in spring in full sun. They grow in most soils, even sand or gravel, tolerate both seashore and road salt, and withstand drought well. They seem to do best in a well-drained soil (pH between 5.5 and 7.5). A thick organic mulch, renewed each spring with compost or manure, should supply all the other nutrients they need and protect the shallow roots. Seaberries grow quickly and usually bear their first fruits two to three years after planting. Some varieties produce 30 to 50 pounds of fruit per shrub annually, but it may take several years to reach maximum production.
Seaberries need little pruning, unless you want to train them into bushy shrubs or shapely small trees. From time to time, cut out damaged or unproductive branches. Prune in fall after harvesting the berries in late summer. The plants resist most diseases and insects, so spraying is seldom necessary.
Harvest berries when they are fully colored but still firm. Although birds like to nest in the shrubs, they aren't keen on ripe berries, so netting isn't usually necessary. Pick the berries by hand, or if the bushes are large, cut some of the branches and shake off the berries. This technique keeps the plant small and berries within reach for easy harvesting.
Wash the fruits, then puree them (or crush them with a potato masher). Strain the juice, discarding the seeds and pulp. Measure the juice (2-1/2 pounds of berries yield about 1 quart of juice) into a large pot, and heat to 120° F. Mix 1 part sugar or honey to 6 parts liquid, and continue heating until the sugar dissolves. Pour into sterilized bottles, and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or freeze for up to six months. For a light, refreshing drink, mix the seaberry juice with other fruit juices, such as apple, orange, or raspberry, and soda water to taste.
Popular authors Lewis and Nancy Hill are the proprietors of Berry Hill Farm in Northern Vermont.