A little-known but highly nutritious ornamental shrub growing in popularity around the world has finally made it to Atlantic Canada.
For the past four years Barbara Barczyk, a well-known businesswoman and one-time owner of the former Jacob's Larder in Sackville, has been growing sea buckthorn at her farm in Baie Verte with the help of her grandson Lucas Barczyk. For the first time this year the bright orange berries of the miraculous plant are being sold for making juice, jams, jellies and other food items.
Barczyk, a proponent of natural foods, said recently that although virtually unknown in Canada, the sea buckthorn plant has been revered by peoples in other countries around the world for centuries.
"The ancient Greeks fed their horses the leaves of the sea buckthorn because it gave the horses very shiny coats. In Mongolia and other countries they still feed this plant to horses today because of its wonderful benefits. The berries of the plant are some of the most nutritious in the world; it is very high in protein and many vitamins, including vitamin C. There is seven times more vitamin C in a sea buckthorn berry than there is in a lemon. And the oil in the berries is very high in Omega 3 acid," she explained.
Indeed, studies from around the world have shown that the oil of the sea buckthorn berry is one of the best single sources of essential amino acids and the unsaturated fatty acids omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 as well as many essential trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and zinc.
The fruit of the sea buckthorn plant are tough-skinned, oval-shaped berries containing one seed and lots of tart, but tasty juice.
"When we press the juice from the berries it separates into three layers, the top being a thick layer of bright orange cream, the middle contains a high content of polyunsaturated fats and the bottom layer is juice. The seed of the berries also contains a high concentration of polyunsaturated fat," she said.
The juice can be used to make jams, jellies, liqueurs, wines and vinegar. The leaves of the sea buckthorn are used for fodder for cattle and also for making a natural tea. Because the sea buckthorn shrub has an extensive root system it is often used in many countries for winds breaks to aid in soil retention.
Sea buckthorn oil has been used in many countries for medicinal purposes for many years, particularly for supporting healthy mucus membranes which cover the respiratory, digestive, urinary and genital tracts as well as the surface of the eyes.
"Clinical studies and animal experiments have shown that sea buckthorn oil has been very helpful to mucous membranes in the body and it helps to make new skin cells. It is also good for prostate health and maintaining hormone balance and healthy immune system. It's been shown that, because the plant contains so many nutrients, that it is good for many health issues," she added.
The Barczyks planted 1000 sea buckthorn plants in 2007 on a two-acre section of their property and since then the shrubs have grown to between five and 10 feet tall. The species requires both male and female plants for reproduction, with only the female bearing fruit each year, with a lifetime production rate of about 18 years. The sea buckthorn shrub requires no fertilization, so is a completely organic crop. In fact, the species will grow in the poorest of soil types, but to flourish it requires lots of light and sunshine. Thanks to its nitrogen-fixing properties, the shrub actually improves the quality of the soil surrounding it and does well in both warm and cold climates.
"This is a very easy plant to grow. It requires virtually no care at all except keeping grass and weeds from growing around them, and they regenerate themselves by putting out new plants, so you never need to buy more. We've lost a few shrubs, but I think that's because they had too much shade from larger trees nearby," she said.
However, harvesting of the sea buckthorn berries is labour intensive since the shrub has small thorns at the base of the leaves. Barczyk explained that during harvest, which she and Lucas have just recently completed, about three-quarters of the new growth of each shrub (containing dense branches of berries) are cut off by hand with pruning shears.
"You have to leave at least a quarter of the new growth intact so the shrub will continue to produce new leaves and berries next year," she noted.
The berries still on the clipped branches are then frozen, after which the berries are shaken off, ready for use.
The only producer of sea buckthorn east of Saskatchewan, Barczyk said she hopes other farmers in Atlantic Canada will consider growing this crop.
"This region needs more growth, more industry, and many farmers need to look toward other types of crops to support the sagging agricultural industry. I'd like to see many more producers of sea buckthorn in this area; by working together we can create a successful new industry right here, perhaps even begin making our own products from the sea buckthorn plant right here in this region," she said.
Although Barczyk now has a market for her sea buckthorn berries, she also offers juice and berries for sale from her home.