Sometimes I encounter a plant that has adapted so thoroughly to its native habitat that it blows my mind. The silver buffaloberry is one such specimen.
Other buffaloberry varieties propagate by layering (meaning the branches droop down and grow roots where they touch the ground). Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) shrubs instead produce suckers underground. This means that they readily survive the wildfires that are a fixture in the prairie ecosystem. When a fire rips through, the plant that’s above ground gets burnt up leaving the healthy and robust root system below ground. Once the coast is clear, new shoots emerge and the silver buffaloberry keeps on keepin’ on.
The spring thaw causes flooding in one of the silver buffaloberry’s favourite habitats: riverbanks. With a strong root system to hold it in place, and a tolerance for occasional soaking, the shrub is undisturbed by a situation that might spell disaster for other less scrappy varieties.
The flip side of flooding is drought and the silver buffaloberry can withstand that, too. It doesn’t need a ton of water, in comparison to other plants, so it holds on through the hot summer months that might see less than ideal precipitation amounts.
One of the main attractions to the silver buffaloberry for growers and permaculturists is its nitrogen fixing habit. Everyone benefits from its ability to sequester the nitrogen in the atmosphere (with the help of bacteria) and make it available to other plant buddies in its vicinity.
The bright red berry of the silver buffaloberry is edible and will hold on into winter, making it a favourite of birds and animals looking for a tasty treat once most berries have disappeared. It’s good for people too—and can be used to make jams, jellies, and in baking. Note: the fruit is not actually a berry but a drupe.
Silver buffaloberry is a native plant in North America. Its home region is smack dab in the middle of the continent i.e. southern Saskatchewan and out to Alberta and Manitoba, and then down to Montana and the Dakotas. Like the saskatoon berry, silver buffaloberries were used by Indigenous people of the plains region as an ingredient in pemmican, a highly nutritious staple food made from dried meat, fat, and berries.
Eventually farmers started using the silver buffaloberry as a windbreak to shelter their crops because it grows into dense thickets.
The silver buffaloberry is a good plant to have around for the nitrogen fixing alone. Add to that a beautiful silvery foliage, a tasty and versatile berry, and extreme hardiness—you’ve got a winner!