Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is a small shrub belonging to the botanical family Elaeagnaceae. It is an ancient fruit of rural tradition that grows wild in our country, especially in the central-northern regions. These fruits have high commercial value as they are among the richest in vitamin C. For this reason, in recent years, some enterprising young farmers in Italy have been experimenting with intensive cultivation of this plant, following the example of countries in continental Europe such as Germany, where the cultivation is widespread.
In this article, we will explore the botanical characteristics of the Hippophae rhamnoides plant, organic cultivation techniques, properties, and uses of its fruits.
Regional Names of Hippophae rhamnoides
Sea buckthorn is known by various common names in different regions, a testament to its ancient tradition in the northern part of the country. In Piedmont, it is called “gorra”, in Lombardy “spino dell’Adda” and “briuscioi”, in Veneto “sbregavache”, “spin bianco dell’Adese”, “spin de iara”, in Friuli “ue di cornitt”, in Emilia “spin de berleida”, and “bozzeini”.
Description of Sea Buckthorn
Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is a small bushy shrub, typically reaching a height of 1-3 meters. It has a strong tendency to produce basal shoots but can also be grown as a tree with continuous pruning. When grown as a tree, it can reach heights of up to 6 meters and exceptionally up to 10 meters.
It is a deciduous species, highly branched and spiny (except in some older specimens). It is mainly the shorter branches that have thorns, which are spindle-shaped and end in a spine. Young branches are covered in reddish scales, with dark brown bark that is smooth and shiny in young specimens. Over time, the bark becomes fibrous and scaly, resembling the dense branching of wild blackthorn.
The leaves of sea buckthorn are alternate and lanceolate, similar to those of rosemary plants. They densely cover the branches, are very narrow, and have a very short, almost absent petiole. The margin is always entire. The upper side of the leaf is dark green, while the lower side is gray-silvery due to the presence of a dense layer of hair.
Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is a dioecious species, meaning it has male and female flowers on separate plants. This means that for good fruiting, it should never be cultivated as single specimens. Male flowers are borne on small spikes, with a calyx of 2 sepals enclosing 4 stamens; they lack petals. Female flowers are borne on branches either singly or in pairs, with a tubular involucre divided into 2 at the apex, enclosing the ovary. In general, sea buckthorn flowers are small, and their color is greenish. Flowering occurs between April and May, coinciding with the emergence of leaves.
The fruits of sea buckthorn are oval to goblet-shaped drupes, yellow-orange in color, measuring 6-8 mm in diameter. Inside, they contain a kernel with very acidic flesh. In other words, they consist of a dry fruit (achene) surrounded by fleshy receptacles. Ripening occurs in autumn. Harvesting these fruits can be challenging, especially in the case of wild sea buckthorn growing in remote areas with dense growth and thorns.
Natural Habitat of Sea Buckthorn
Sea buckthorn is naturally found in central-northern Italy, with an altitude limit of 1,800 meters above sea level in the Alpine valleys. It is easily recognizable from a distance due to its dense grayish foliage. It prefers rocky places, such as gravel beds and the edges of rivers and streams, where it forms compact masses. It also thrives in calcareous soils, such as eroded slopes. However, it can also be found in mountainous wet meadows. The species is heliophilic, capable of growing only in sunny areas with low surrounding vegetation. As it grows, the lower branches become etiolated due to their own shade, causing leaves and fruits to grow only on the outer parts of the shrub or bush.
Ornamental Shrub or Fruit Plant?
In the past, sea buckthorn had some importance in forestry due to its stoloniferous root system, which helps stabilize soil, making it useful for the initial restoration of eroded mountainsides. It was also valued for marking property boundaries because of its dense and thorny vegetation, forming an impassable barrier for both grazing and wild animals. Today, sea buckthorn is cultivated for ornamental purposes or, more intensively, as a fruit cultivar, given the high commercial value of its fruits. The choice of cultivation purpose has practical implications in terms of cultivation practices.
How to Cultivate Sea Buckthorn
Considering the characteristics of the Hippophae rhamnoides plant, it can be grown anywhere as it is cold-hardy and can withstand frost. It also tolerates wind and can even be grown near the sea in saline soils. The crucial factor for good fruit and healthy shrub growth is exposure to sunlight. The soil can be low in organic matter, but it should not have a too compact structure, such as clayey soils. Sandy or rocky soils are preferred, and the ideal pH level is neutral to slightly alkaline, with good resistance to active lime.
To start cultivating sea buckthorn, you have various options depending on the purpose of cultivation. For garden introduction as an ornamental plant or small domestic fruit, you can choose between sowing seeds or transplanting shoots. For intensive and specialized cultivation, it’s recommended to start with young seedlings. Let’s look at the procedures.
The simplest way to start sea buckthorn cultivation in a family orchard is to uproot young shoots from plants in their natural habitat. These shoots, equipped with a portion of the stump, will be planted once they have rooted. This operation is typically done in late autumn, placing the shoot in a mixture of soil and sand. Vegetative growth usually resumes without difficulty, so in spring (or the following autumn), you can transplant the rooted shoot into open ground.
Sea buckthorn seeding is done in autumn by placing the seeds outdoors in small pots filled with a mixture of soil and sand. By spring, you will have the first sprouts and seedlings. For the initial period, it is advisable to keep them in pots and transplant them into open ground in the following autumn or spring. The advantage of this technique is that sea buckthorn seeds are readily available in specialized online stores.
Purchasing Sea Buckthorn Seedlings
Buying seedlings is almost a necessity for those looking to start intensive cultivation. However, the availability of seedlings can be an issue. You can find potted plants that are 1-2 years old in nursery, but they can be costly for an entire plantation. To find seedlings suitable for establishing a new plantation, you may need to contact nurseries in other countries, such as France or Germany, where sea buckthorn cultivation is more widespread, and nurseries reproduce cultivars in quantity.
When planting the seedlings, remember to include a certain number of male plants, as they serve as pollinators. Similar to the cultivation of kiwi, you need one male plant for every 4-5 females, maintaining some alternation between the plants. Another option is to alternate entire rows of males with rows of females.
Planting Sea Buckthorn
The best time to plant sea buckthorn is in the autumn, but you can also proceed in early spring. If the goal is ornamental in a garden, just two plants (one male and one female) placed 2-3 meters apart are sufficient. Over time, they will form a beautiful shrub or hedge. If the objective is intensive cultivation, it is recommended to plant in regular rows, making future harvesting operations easier, with 3-4 meters between each plant and the same spacing between rows.
Fertilization is not necessary for sea buckthorn, even at the time of planting. One of the characteristics of the cultivar is its ability to fix nitrogen, much like legumes, thanks to its symbiosis with actinomycete bacteria of the genus Frankia. Therefore, it enriches the soil, improving it.
Irrigation in sea buckthorn cultivation is only necessary in the first year if you are transplanting the seedlings in spring. Once established, the plant no longer requires regular irrigation. You should only intervene in case of emergencies, after long periods of drought.
In the first year after planting, it is advisable to keep the area around the plant free of weeds. This can be achieved through periodic weeding operations. Once the upper part of the shrub/bush has formed, you won’t need to clear the ground of weeds anymore.
Pruning Sea Buckthorn
Pruning sea buckthorn serves primarily to keep the plant orderly and healthy by removing dry or damaged parts. You can take advantage of the plant’s ability to produce suckers for its expansion or, conversely, for orderly rows of plants. Therefore, sucker pruning operations vary depending on the planting design.
Another interesting pruning operation is topping, which stimulates the plant to compact and produce fruits in the lower, more accessible part.
Pests and Diseases
Sea buckthorn is an extremely hardy species that does not suffer from pest attacks. Regarding diseases, the key is to maintain well-drained soil. In waterlogged and stagnant soils, there is a risk of root rot.
How and When to Harvest Sea Buckthorn
As mentioned, sea buckthorn fruits ripen in autumn, are very persistent on the plant, and should be harvested before the arrival of frost. Harvesting is done by hand and can be labor-intensive, especially for spontaneous plants in difficult-to-reach locations due to dense growth and sharp thorns.
In northern European countries, it is common to cut the branches to expedite the process, which are then shaken to drop the fruits. However, be cautious because the berries are delicate and should be stacked in low layers to avoid damage.
Properties and Uses of Sea Buckthorn Fruits
Sea buckthorn fruits contain high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, organic acids (omega 3, 6, 7, and 9), antioxidants, mucilages, minerals, polyphenols, and phytosterols. They are true vitamin supplements, as well as intestinal astringents and anti-inflammatory agents. Their prevalence in Central Europe is due to the inability to grow citrus fruits in those countries. Many studies attribute antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and antimicrobial properties to the plant. The primary use of sea buckthorn fruits involves industrial processing, mainly for juice production, considered dietary supplements and sold at high prices. In a domestic context, harvested fruits can be used to prepare jams and jellies, which have a pleasant tart flavor. It is easy to find numerous preparations for sale online.