Sea buckthorn shouldn’t be the northern edible darling that it is. It’s got huge thorns. The berries are so tart they’re almost inedible. It’s impossible to harvest other than painstakingly by hand (although there’s a trick I’ll get into later). It suckers like crazy and can overwhelm other plants if you’re not careful.
And yet, it’s all over permaculture, natural health, and northern growing blogs and websites. What gives?
It’s no accident that sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) has the word THORN in it. The plant is technically a shrub, but it can grow to tree-like heights of 25 feet plus. The density and thorniness can make it a great option for an edible hedge/fence to keep animals in or out.
The berries themselves are small and bright orangey-yellowy. They’re quite sour eaten right off the bush, but sweeten somewhat after a frost. When the berries are ripe they almost look like fish roe clumped together along the branches. Besides being high in vitamin C and other good stuff, their seeds make sea buckthorn berries surprisingly good sources of protein. It’s labour intensive, but you can extract oil from the seeds.
The leaves are a pleasant green with a silvery ting—almost like an olive tree. They remind me of big rosemary leaves. Easy on the eye, hard on the fingers.
To that end, I avoid getting pricked by the thorns when harvesting by clipping the entire branch and popping it into my chest freezer. Once the berries are frozen, I whack the branches over a bag or tarp and catch them as they fall off. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. It’s still a good idea to wear gloves.
Hippophae, the generic Latin name for sea buckthorn, means “shiny horse.” It refers to the ancient Greek practice of feeding the plant to their horses to help weight gain and to make the horses’ coats shine. The leaves are 15% protein, so that’s probably part of the beneficial effect.
In Greek mythology, Pegasus the winged horse was believed to enjoy snacking on sea buckthorn berries.
Ancient Tibetan medical writings describe the benefits of sea buckthorn in treating a persistent cough, digestive issues, skin problems, and even cancer. The plant actually originates from northern regions of Asia and Europe (including Mongolia, Tibet, China, Russia, and Scandinavian countries).
I don’t know if I would rely solely on this, but during the space race of the 1960s Russian cosmonauts used cream made from sea buckthorn to combat radiation in space. They also ate the berries to boost their systems in advance of space travel.
Sea buckthorn is a heavy hitter when it comes to medicinal properties. The oil can be applied directly to skin to help ease skin irritations including burns, eczema, and superficial wounds.
Tea made from the leaves is supposed to be good for you––it contains immune boosting antioxidants like flavonoids and carotenoids.
The berries maybe aren’t the best for eating right off the bush, but they make delicious preserves and are great for baking and cooking. The juice is a healthy elixir but a bit weird to drink since it’s oily. Considering how many different uses there are for sea buckthorn, how hardy it is, and how good it is for healthy soil, it should find a home in every Ontario garden and food forest!