The Goji Berry Plant: Grow the Alpha Superfood in Your Garden

Goji Berry Benefits Include Cancer-Fighting Properties (And the Plant is Easy to Grow!)

The Goji Berry Plant: Grow the Alpha Superfood in Your Garden

By Don Daugs – We introduced our experiences with growing goji berry plant, also known as the wolfberry, to Countryside readers with two articles in 2009. The plants we grow were discovered on a friend’s ranch in the Utah West dessert. They were a side benefit of the building of the transcontinental railroad more than 150 years ago. Wolfberries were a part of the Chinese worker’s diet. A few plants were transplanted to my garden and the next spring resulted in a bounteous crop of fruit. That first planting has evolved into a nursery that supplies six national mail order catalog nurseries with plants by the thousands and equally important, the person who may only want one plant. We receive daily phone calls and emails and we freely share information.

We named our goji berry plant variety Phoenix Tears. Not to detract from my scientific background, you should know that the name was given to me by the original wolfberry transplants growing in my garden. Plants do talk. Chinese legend says that the “alpha” wolf ate both the fruit and leaves to maintain his dominance over the pack. We call this variety an Alpha Superfood, because of its nutrient profile, the fact that it will grow in hardiness planting zones 3-10, is self-pollinating, drought hardy, hates fertilizer, and grows in any soil with a pH of 6.8 or higher. Similar to the sea buckthorn benefits, the goji berry plant has fruit, leaves, and roots with food or medicinal value, and will talk to you if you are willing to listen. All other potential superfood plants come in a distant second, including pomegranate and blueberries.

Wolfberries have been grown in China for thousands of years. I am sure the Chinese are also still learning, and I know they are doing far more research on wolfberry plants than is done in the United States. Unfortunately, the thousands of acres devoted to goji berry plant production in western China is a mono-crop, and as such are subject to pests and fertilizer needs similar to a mono-crop such as corn in the United States. So far, we have not experienced such challenges in Utah. We have produced up to 100 pounds of fruit from a 30-foot row of mature plants that started out with 15 roots.

Growing the Goji Berry Plant at Home

Site Preparation for the Goji Berry Plant
Wolfberries can be grown in anything from a one-gallon container to open fields. A critical factor in goji berry plant propagation is soil pH. It MUST be 6.8 or higher. Our nursery plots have a pH of 7.4 and the West Desert site has a pH of 8.0. Soil that grows blueberries will kill wolfberries. If the pH is too low, a calcium supplement is required. We recommend using oyster shells, which can be purchased at stores that sell chicken feed. There are also other commercial calcium supplements available. Soil type is not critical. Wolfberries will grow in clay, sand, or loam however, each soil type has its unique properties.

If planting in containers, do not use purchased potting soil. Many potting soils include peat or sphagnum moss, which tends to make the soil too acidic. If available, use a good sandy loam for potting soil.

Soil can be tilled from two- to six- inches deep, but holes for individual roots may need to be dug deeper, depending on the length of roots. Some growers just dig holes where plants are to go and do not even till up the soil. They then mow the grass between the rows of plants, or let the plants naturalize in a given area. Others have used raised beds, covered with plastic and watered with drip irrigation. The plants will adapt to whatever is your intent. If planting bare root stock, place the plants in the ground a little deeper than the soil line on the plant. If you purchase potted plants, carefully remove the plant with all the soil. If the soil clump does not come out of the pot easily, cut the pot off. Again place the plant in the ground a little deeper than the previous soil line.

Do not add nitrogen to the soil. Wolfberries do not like rich soil. As nitrogen levels increase, leaf production increases and fruit production decreases, and if the nitrogen levels get too high, the plants die. This principle is especially important for newly planted bare roots. We have plants at the nursery that have received no fertilizer in any form for eleven years and are producing excellent fruit crops. Fruit and leaf nutrient tests from these plants indicate they are as good as or better than the best that come from China.

Once established, the goji berry plant is very drought resistant, but newly planted starts need to be kept moist. Older plants send down a taproot that can access water deep in the ground; so if the soil looks dry on the surface, this may not mean that the plants need water. It is better to give them a good soaking every few weeks than to water a small amount more often. Sandy soil, with poor water holding capacity, needs watering more often than clay soil.

For field or garden planting, place plants every two feet in the row and make rows at least six feet apart.

More of the top seed companies are offering goji berry plant roots. Bare root stock arrives looking like a dead twig and the root is just a bare stick with no root hairs. Never fear, new buds may appear in as little as three days, or up to two weeks after planting. The bare rootstock has been stripped of leaves and new growth comes out from secondary buds where the previous leaves were stripped off. Occasionally, new shoots will come up from the roots.

Pruning the Goji Berry Plant
Bare root stock planted in early spring should have some fruit the first summer and should reach full production in three years, depending on how they are pruned. We have tried various approaches to pruning. Originally we trained vines on wires as in grape production. The vines of a goji berry plant will get 13 to 15 feet long if not pruned. We found that pruning to promote fruit production on trellises resulted in a tangled mass of vines, making fruit picking difficult. The trellis approach also produced more second-year growth, and that is where most thorns form.

Our most productive plants are two- to three-year-old plants grown for resale that are planted as one-year-old bare roots. They are planted in solid rows and are not pruned at all. Each plant produces many first-year stems, each of which produces fruit. The only down side of this approach is that you need to get on your knees to pick the fruit. If all stems that produced fruit are cut off in late fall, the plants produce even more stems in the spring, producing even larger crops in succeeding years.

The self-supporting plant pruning procedure outlined as follows is the most recommended approach to pruning. It results in attractive rows of plants with easy to reach stems for fruit production.

First Year: Generally it is best to let the first year’s growth of a goji berry plant go unpruned. This will maximize root production and give a few more berries the first summer.

Second Year: Select the largest healthy stem of your goji berry plant for a main trunk. Remove any side shoots. When this main stem reaches 16 inches, trim off the tip to promote side branches. During the summer, remove any new shoots that come off the main stem at an angle of more than 45 degrees. Leave three to five side shoots that are growing at less than a 45-degree angle from the stem. If you want a narrow row, leave only side stems that are parallel to the rows. These become lateral branches that will produce fruit and fill in the spaces between the plants. Leave one large, upright shoot near where the main stem was cut off. This shoot will become the third-year main stem.

Third Year: Fall or early winter pruning can be done to clear out unwanted stems from your goji berry plant. Spring and summer pruning is used to control structure and canopy growth. The goal is to prune to maximize first-year shoot production and eliminate second-year growth as most thorns appear on second-year growth. Aim for an umbrella-like canopy of first-year growth. The long-term goal is to have a nicely shaped, self-supporting plant that is about six feet tall, with a three-foot diameter canopy of first-year growth.

Starting about the third year, plants will begin to produce runners around the base of the plant, similar to the way raspberries reproduce. These shoots should be dug up for replanting or used for vegetables. If side shoots are not dug up, wolfberries can become very invasive. If tilling between rows, do so after digging up emerging new shoots. Tilling promotes more new shoots and is great if you need hundreds of new plants.

goji berry plant
The nutrient content of wolfberries varies as it ripens—as sweetness increases, nutrients decrease.

Goji Berry Plant Harvest
Nutrients in both fruit and leaves are not constant. As fruit ripens from orange to red, sugar content increases and B vitamins and calcium content decreases. Fully ripe fruit is less bitter. My preference is to let fruit at the base of a frond become fully ripe and nearly all fruit at least orange in color. Then I pick all the fruit on a frond by the handful. That way there is a mix of nutrients and it is much more efficient than just picking fruit as it is fully ripe. The ripe fruit on Phoenix Tears variety does not drop off when ripe, as does the fruit of some other varieties, so picking can be delayed to get maximum ripe fruit at one time. Pick by pulling fruit slightly to the side, rather than pulling straight away from the branches. This produces the least amount of stem remaining on the fruit.

Wash picked fruit in cold water. Fruit with stems still on will float, facilitating stem removal. This is much less work than trying to get stem-free fruit when picking. Washed fruit can be used fresh and will keep well in the refrigerator for a few weeks. For freezing, just put the washed fruit in freezer bags and put into the freezer. I prefer one or two-quart size bags, and fill so that when laid out flat the contents are an inch or less thick. This facilitates quick freezing and when opened, any amount can be easily removed. We have no data on nutrient loss in frozen fruit over time, but fruit frozen for three years still looks and tastes like freshly frozen fruit.

For drying, place the washed fruit on racks and dry at 105°F or less. Drying takes three or more days and fruit tends to stick to the drying racks. Fruit is dry when it reaches a raisin like consistency. Dried fruit retains its nutrient value for years.

Leaves and young stems can be harvested any time of the year. Heavy spring and summer pruning will promote new stem and leaf growth. Stems for vegetable use should still be totally green and show no woodiness. Newly formed stems six inches or less in length are the most tender. Leaves can be left on the stems and the entire unit can be used as a fresh vegetable, or they can be dried for later use. Leaves and stems dried in a dehydrator at 105°F take less than a day to dry. Dried products should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Dried stems and leaves can also be powdered in a blender. I use the “Dry” Vita Mix container to powder dried leaves. This nutrient-loaded product takes up very little storage space.

Leaves for vegetables or tea can be picked throughout the growing season. If growing plants for both fruit and leaves, the best time to harvest the leaves is late in the fall after nearly all the fruit has been harvested and before the first heavy frost. Wearing a leather glove facilitates harvesting the leaves and helps prevent getting stuck by thorns. To strip the leaves, grasp the base of the stem with a gloved hand and pull up the stem. This will strip all the leaves off the stem. Leaves may be used fresh, dried or powdered. Leaves for drying should be immersed in cold water, washed and drained and then placed on drying racks.

Goji berry plant roots can be harvested at any time of the year. A good source of root material is the side shoots that come up between the rows.

Uses of the Goji Berry Plant
Both fresh and dried leaves and berries can be used in a multitude of ways, including appetizers, salads, main dishes, breads, muffins, cookies, breakfast foods, desserts, and beverages. A Superfood Cook’s Dream Come True, Goji Wolfberry Recipes, includes 127 wolfberry recipes. Lacking a wolfberry cookbook, just add wolfberry leaves and fruit to just about anything.

Nutrients of the Goji Berry
The name “Goji” appears to have been adopted about 2004 as an English language berry-marketing name. “Tibetan Goji” and “Himalayan Goji” are English language marketing names and are not found in Chinese literature. In fact, Goji is not found in any Tibetan history or traditional medicine texts. Ningxia, a province in North Central China, produces about 40% of the annual Chinese goji berry plant crop, with a reported 2001 production of 13,000 metric tons. Dried fruit is exported, but most leaf and root material is consumed in China.

Most of the available wolfberry nutrient information comes from Internet sources. Little actual plant nutrient testing has been done on varieties grown in the United States. Lycium barbarum, variety Phoenix Tears is an exception to that rule.

Reasons for including goji berry plant parts in the diet can be justified by inferring a relationship between plant nutrient content and possible health benefits. Nutrient testing is very expensive. Even a simple test for a common nutrient like vitamin C costs about $150. Most growers and fruit suppliers cite existing data files for their nutrient claims. Using our own resources and the help of two USDA Specialty Crop grants, Phoenix Tears Nursery has devoted nearly $20,000 to fruit and leaf nutrient testing.

What follows is a summary of some of the data we have assembled on nutrients found in Lycium barbarum, variety Phoenix Tears. Keep in mind, these are in most cases one-time tests.

We do know that nutrients change over the course of a growing season. For example, ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) values in Phoenix Tears dried leaves, ranged from 486 in the spring of 2009, to 522 in the fall of 2010. This is quite a large difference, but when compared with listed values for blueberries at 40 and pomegranate at 100, the difference is not very critical. ORAC is a valid measure of antioxidant potential. It is a measure of the food’s free radical absorption capacity. Preserving the antioxidant status of the body is the key to absorbing injurious free radicals. There is no other whole food that can match wolfberry plants for this purpose.

Phoenix Tears leaves were tested for total bioflavonoids in 2010, and were found to have triple the carotenoids and five times the lutine found in spinach. Bioflavonoids are water-soluble and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They also can play a role in modifying the body’s response to allergens, viruses, and carcinogens. Alpha and beta-carotene have anti-carcinogenic activity. Zeaxanthin and lutein have been shown to protect eyes from age-related macular degeneration. A common source of zeaxanthin is egg yolk. Both dried wolfberry fruit and dried wolfberry leaves are excellent cholesterol free sources of these nutrients. Most of the zeaxanthin found in wolfberry fruit is a dipalmate form and has twice the bioavailability of more common nonesterfied forms.

Lycopene is another carotenoid found in the goji berry plant. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant and may play a role in prostate cancer prevention. Tomato juice and ketchup are listed as prime sources of lycopene. Phoenix Tears dried leaf lycopene content was double that of ketchup, without sugar or high fructose corn syrup found in many tomato products.

Another incredible nutrient found in the goji berry plant is the carotenoid betta-crptoxanthin. The USDA database lists wolfberries with the highest value for any food plant source. Research, mostly in China, has proven betta-crptoxanthin effective in treating diabetes, preventing bone loss, relieving arthritis inflammation, restoring strength in muscles, and treating cardiovascular disease.

Dried leaves tested in 2009 had a betaine content of 19.38 mg/g. This value is higher than found in wheat bran and wheat germ, two foods listed as having high betaine content. Betaine is rapidly absorbed and plays a role in maintaining liver, heart, and kidney health. Betaine is often prescribed for lowering high blood pressure. Betaine will also reduce homocystine levels.

Phoenix Tears fruit tested in 2009 had an ellagic acid content of 11.92 mcg/g. Also found in pomegranate and raspberries, this nutrient is a proven cancer deactivator. A May 1997 study at the Amala Cancer Research Center found that ellagic acid, even in very small amounts, was highly effective in deactivating aflatoxin B1, one of the five most potent liver cancers known. Ellagic acid also binds to and protects DNA from methylating carcinogens. In another study by Hanen Mukhtan, trace amounts of ellagic acid were added to drinking water before feeding rats carcinogens found in barbequed beef and chicken. A very small dose of ellagic acid delayed cancer by 50%. How about wolfberries with your hamburgers? Dozens of other studies could be cited to show the effects of ellagic acid on lung, liver, skin, colon, and bladder cancer.

The ultimate anti-aging agent in wolfberry fruit is PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone). Wolfberries (Lycium barbarum), have a centuries long reputation as an anti-aging food source. The amount of PQQ found in Phoenix Tears wolfberries far exceeds any other known natural source of this nutrient.

Scientists have identified mitochondrial dysfunction as a key factor in aging. Mitochondrial dysfunction and death are now clearly linked in the development of diseases associated with aging. Recent research has documented that PQQ can reverse mitochondrial dysfunction. PQQ not only protects mitochondria from oxidation damage, it also stimulates growth of new mitochondria. The number of mitochondria in body cells, including the brain, decrease with age. Scientists now believe that mitochondria number and function determine longevity. PQQ has emerged as the nutrient that can safely trigger mitochondria biogenesis.

Nutrient analysis of Phoenix Tears wolfberries revealed a PQQ content nearly 300 times greater than natto, a food source listed with the highest level of PQQ.

Part of PQQ’s role as an antioxidant is related to its capacity to participate in repeated reactions before breaking down. For example, vitamin C can survive four catalatic redox cycles, catechin 75, quercetin 800, and PQQ 20,000. Thus, as a free radical scavenger, PQQ is unexcelled.

When the 2009 articles were printed in Countryside, we were just beginning to collect nutrient data. The information above is just a fraction of what we have learned. The data on leaf nutrients opened a whole new dimension of use and marketing possibilities. Who would have thought that there would be a need for a goji berry plant cookbook? Who would have predicted that one customer in 2013 would preorder 11,000 plants? We are a long way from competing with China’s thousands of acres devoted to wolfberries, but every goji berry plant growing in someone’s back yard is progress.

2 eggs
1/3 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup freshly ground flax seed
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon orange zest
3/4 cup dried wolfberries
1/2 cup ground walnuts

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Beat eggs until fluffy. Slowly beat oil into eggs. Then beat in lime juice. In another bowl combine remaining ingredients. Then slowly stir the dry mixture into wet mixture. Pour batter into a seasoned, cast iron skillet. Bake 30 minutes at 350°F. Cool slightly before serving. Serve with butter, honey, or jam.

Serves 6

Originally published in Countryside May / June 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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