Sea Buckthorn, A Useful Permaculture Shrub + High-Value Crop
Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is a nitrogen fixing, thorny deciduous shrub that tolerates extremely harsh conditions where other plants may struggle. It is native to Russia and China, naturally occuring at elevations above 4,000 feet, but also grows readily at lower elevations, including the seaside. It is not a true buckthorn (Rhamnus spp), and also goes by the names sandthorn and sallowthorn. (If you haven’t guessed from the common names, the thorns are no joke, some growing as long as my index finger.)
The fruit of the sea buckthorn – called the “seaberry” – has been prized for generations as a high-value crop, rich in oils and vitamins. In recent decades, the oily fruit has increased in commercial value due to its use in cosmetics, hair oil, and moisturizers. Farms focusing on seaberry cultivation now range from Canada to Russia to Germany and across temperate parts of Asia.
In my own garden, the sea buckthorn has been a useful hedgerow plant within the food forest design. The leaves are edible for poultry, and can be dried and crushed into their feed. The shrubs themselves fix nitrogen, and their thorny branches provide shelter from songbirds from the endless pressure of urban outdoor cats.
Late in the summer (and into autumn), the shrub produces large quantities of nutritious berries. These berries freeze well, and while they’re too sour to eat straight off the bush, the juice is incredibly good in a range of culinary uses (more on that below).
How to Grow – and When Not To
Sea buckthorn is not right for every garden. I’ll be the first to say, do due diligence before adding plants to your garden or permaculture system. But for those systems where it is well-suited, sea buckthorn is a tremendously beneficial plant. I have zero regrets about adding it here at Parkrose Permaculture.
Sea buckthorn is a pioneer species. This means it is hardy, resilient, and can handle a range of difficult conditions that other plants cannot. While that resilience means it can be aggressive in certain conditions, but also means it thrives in sandy soil, clay soil, areas of high wind, salt, and low soil fertility. And not only does it thrive in harsh conditions that are not suitable for cultivating other crops, it produces large yields of fruit while doing so – and fixes nitrogen while doing so!
Questions to ask before planting sea buckthorn in your garden:
1. Do I like eating the berries? Find someone who grows seaberries and try them before planting (you can also order juice and other seaberry foods online). I tried some at the One Green World fall fruit tasting years and years ago, before deciding to buy.
2. Am I okay with a thorny, 15 ft tall set of shrubs in my garden? How will those shrubs shade/interact with other plants in my system?
3. Do I have a full-sun location for at least two shrubs? Am I aware that even shade from the uppermost branches can cause lower-branch die-back, and that shade is the kiss of death for this plant?
4. Am I okay dealing with suckers (or do I have room to let the shrub sucker naturally)? Will I be okay removing suckers a few times a year for as long as I grow these plants?
5. Does my site need erosion-control, nitrogen fixation, or songbird habitat that could be provided by this plant?
6. How would this shrub benefit my permaculture system and my diet? Do the challenges it may pose outweigh the benefits? Is it right for my garden?
Growing Sea Buckthorn
Size at Maturity : varies widely depending on conditions and variety: 4-20 feet tall, 3-10 feet wide
Fruit Production: Dioecious. One male can pollinate up to 6 females. Berries are produced along the inner stems, and can be challenging to harvest.
Temps: -45F – 100F
Soil Conditions: prefers sandy, poor-quality soils, but can tolerate a wide range including straight-clay
Tolerance: tolerant to wind, salt, poor fertility
Sun/Shade: Needs full sun. Significant branch die-back occurs in shade. Will not fruit without full sun.
Benefits: Nitrogen fixer, edible nutritious berries, medicinal leaves that can be used as livestock feed, stabilizes erosion-prone soils
Challenges: Suckers, sometimes prolifically (especially males) and can form large hedges. Large thorns. Fruit tends to burst when picking by hand. Need a male and female to get fruit. Fruit is too sour to consume fresh.
The leaves of the sea buckthorn can be used as a medicinal tea. As always, consult your healthcare provider and understand fully any medicinal teas you are consuming and how they may interact with pharmeceuticals you are taking. While I’m not going to make medical claims about their use, I have enjoyed the tea myself. The leaves can be enjoyed fresh or dry easily and mixed with other garden herbs for a caffeine-free tea with a bright flavor. I prefer it with honey and milk.
The berries themselves are very, very sour, with a tinge of bitterness from the skin. I liken it to eating the skin of the sourest citrus you can find. As you might imagine, this means they are incredibly high in vitamin C. In fact, one serving has 6-10x the US RDA of vit C. The fruits also contain calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamins B1, B2, B6, and E.
Seaberries are so highly prized because they are also one of the oiliest temperate fruits you can grow. When harvesting the berries, you can see the oil as it’s deposited on your hands and in the bowl. The berries are incredibly rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3, 6, 7, and 9. The berries themselves are rich in oil that gives a buttery quality to the juice, but the seeds can also be pressed to yield an additional harvest of unsaturated oils useful for human consumption and as a skin/hair conditioner.
How to Enjoy Seaberries
- Juice. The whole reason I started growing seaberries is because I wanted a temperate-climate alternative to orange juice (we drink a lot of orange juice, and obviously, that increases our carbon footprint). I like to cut the juice with water (about 50/50), and add in honey until I get the sweetness I want.
- Any recipe that calls for cranberries, currants, or sour citrus (like calamondin, yuzu, lemon): think curd, jam, cheesecake, and even mixers for whiskey sour.
- Fruit Leather, especially when blended with apples or pears, and some sugar/honey.
Seaberries Are A Part of Sustainable, Local, Seasonal Eating
For me, seasonal, local, sustainable food production is a huge part of why I have a permaculture garden. I want to reduce my impact on the planet in any small ways I am able. That includes trying to grow as much of my own fruit as possible, and reducing the amount of imported fruit I need to buy for my family.
My adventure in growing sea buckthorn began as a search for a local, sustainable alternative to orange juice. I have since learned that this nitrogen-fixing shrub is a huge asset to my permaculture garden, as well as to my diet. It is not without maintenance that I keep 3 of these suckering plants happily fitting into my 1/4 acre design – and also not without the occaisional poke from the long thorns. But the sucker-removal is worth it for me as I continue to reap harvests of nutritious fruits, create wildlife habitat, and gain free nitrogen fixation in my garden.