Sea Buckthorn: It Started With a Prayer
A Multi-Use Cover Crop
Reading Time: 5 minutes
It started with a prayer, on my hands and knees weeding the garden. I looked up and said, “Lord, send me a plant that grows like a weed and is good for all your creation — earth, animal and people.” My husband and I laughed and forgot about it. Later that year, looking through seed catalogs, we saw sea buckthorn and looked it up online. The more we researched the plant and read about it, the more excited we became — here was an answer to that prayer! And so began our journey. We ordered the plants and began growing them, learning along the way.
Sea buckthorn, aka seaberry, sandthorn, Russian pineapple, is well-known in Europe and Asia where it is widely used and valued for soil, water, and wildlife conservation, permaculture and land reclamation, soil erosion control, barrier hedges and windbreaks, as medicine, animal feed, for nutritional supplementation, cosmetics, and just for good healthy eating! It is still relatively unknown in the United States, although it has a 2,000-year history of therapeutic use in other parts of the world.
Seaberry (Hippophae rhamnoides) is NOT the common buckthorn. It is a tree-like shrub, and depending on the variety, will grow eight to 20 feet tall if not pruned. Pruning is very strongly recommended, both for ease of harvesting and for vigorous growth. They do best with full sun, good drainage, and need one inch of water every week until the plant is well-established and when the berries are harvested. They will take from four to six years to provide fruit, although with some TLC you may have berries in three to four years.
Sea buckthorn plants should be spaced 12 feet apart to facilitate maintenance and harvesting, and do well with mulch or (my preference) a cover crop. Clover and buckwheat cover crops will provide forage for pollinators and feed for other animals, plus clover tea for yourself! In order to have fruit, it is necessary to have both a male and female plant growing; one male will easily pollinate seven females.
In central Wisconsin, they flower in early April and are wind-pollinated. They are native to Siberia and hardy to –50 degrees F. Sea buckthorn will grow in marginal soil, actually improving the soil as its spreading root system is nitrogen-fixing. They will grow in USDA planting zones 1-7, but do best where the ground freezes in winter for a few months. Experimental crops have been grown in Arizona and Nevada with mixed results. They are salt and air pollution tolerant.
Sea buckthorn plants and fruit are remarkably pest and disease resistant. Deer that try to eat the berries run into the two-inch thorns and usually give up. Most North American birds do not eat them, although they find the thorny bushes a safe habitat for nesting. My chickens, however, beg for the picked or dropped berries. When ripe, the bright orange berries are less than ½-inch long, egg-shaped, and have an edible black seed. The fruit is very tart and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Sea buckthorn can be propagated through hardwood or softwood cuttings, root cuttings, and by seed. Depending on the variety, harvest can be mid-August through mid-September. They are labor-intensive to harvest, picking each individual berry while avoiding the thorns — long sleeves are definitely recommended! Some commercial operations will cut berry-laden branches, freeze them, and shake the berries off. This does work well and prunes the shrub at the same time, but it takes it out of production the next year, as berries are produced on two-year-old wood.
All parts of the sea buckthorn plant are edible. The berries, seeds, and leaves are used in smoothies, jams/jellies, cooking and baking, making liquors, and tea. Leaves, bark, and berry residue left over from processing are often used for poultry, hog, and horse feed. There have been positive results documented in the general health of animals, along with increased weight gain. Basically, if it has skin, hair, fur, or feathers it will benefit from topical application or internal intake of sea buckthorn oil. Studies have documented increased egg production with the eggs showing high levels of omega oils, among poultry being fed supplemental sea buckthorn products. The health benefits realized by humans using sea buckthorn are also realized by animals, including skin and hair/feather repair and growth; cardiovascular and digestive health.
The leaves are higher in protein than alfalfa and contain lesser amounts of the oil found in the berries. All parts of the plant have varying amounts of nutrients, but the seeds and berries are the nutritional powerhouses due to the high concentration of different oils. It is the only known plant source of omega 3, 5, 7, and 9. It contains significant amounts of vitamins A, E, D, K, F, C, B-complex; 36 types of flavonoids; zinc, iron, calcium, selenium, copper; and 18 different amino acids.
Sea buckthorn’s use as a topical and internal medicine is very well-documented in European, Canadian, Indian, and Asian health care facilities, as well as in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine. It is routinely used for skin and mucous membrane healing — digestive tract ulcers, wound care, burns, and pressure ulcers. Berry purée is added to infant formulas because of the plant’s ability to stimulate bone growth. This also makes it a first-line treatment for osteoporosis.
Studies have shown sea buckthorn is able to actually remove cholesterol from arteries. The seed and berry oil are used topically after radiation exposure due to medical treatments, accidental exposure or severe frostbite/sunburn. There are so many health care applications currently utilizing sea buckthorn products, it is impossible to list them all here. Ancient Tibetan medical journals devote 30 chapters to sea buckthorn’s uses.
Interested persons with internet access can find a lot of information by searching for “the healing properties of sea buckthorn.” There is also a growing market for skin and hair care products, as the oil contains ingredients that firm the skin and increase elasticity.
Sea buckthorn is certainly able to be grown by many home gardeners and I hope readers will want to learn more about this amazing plant. My husband and I currently have eight varieties of sea buckthorn growing and have decided to market the plants and products we have learned to make from it. We are determined to inform people of the multitude of benefits to earth, animals, and people that this plant offers, and are willing to share what we have learned through much trial and error with interested persons.
We can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “seaberry information” in the subject line when you email us.
Our mailing address is: Tom & Sharon Pescinski, PO Box 94, Owen WI 54460.
Originally published in Countryside January/February 2020 and regularly vetted for accuracy.