Sea Buckthorn, Gin & Shiny Horses
Sea buckthorn berries have a really interesting flavour. Like super concentrated oranges. They're packed with Vitamin C and all sorts of other goodies, having a similar amount of antioxidants to Acai berries. They're also incredibly sour and never fail to make your face contort in all sorts of directions. I used to have a real soft spot for the super sour sweets as a child and these orange berries put most of them to shame. The Berries have been eaten for thousands of years and are native throughout Europe and Asia.
In more recent times they have been popularised by foragers; particularly in the culinary world by the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen; whose menu has a heavy focus on wild foods.
The latin name is Hippophae rhamnoides. Personally I find latin names hard to remember. When I was studying horticulture academically we had to do lots of plant identification tests throughout the year. I always struggled. It was a whole new language and most of the plants were ornamentals. I always found it much easier to remember plants that had some sort of ethnobotanical use that I could relate to.
Sea buckthorn was one of the first ones I committed to memory. I find it helps to create bizarre images in my mind to help me remember latin names; a simple process I would highly recommend researching called 'Mnemonics'. I remember Hippophae rhamnoides by telling myself you never want to get Rammed by a Hippo (a bright orange one). That image seems to have stuck and I've remembered it since. The name itself comes from the Ancient Greek Hippo (Horse) and Phaos ( To shine). This refers to the use of the leaves which are also highly nutritious and were fed to prize horses to give them the shiniest coats. According to myth they were the favourite food of Pegasus, the flying horse. They plant itself is a hardy, deciduous shrub mostly reaching 2-4 metres tall . The leaves are arranged alternately on the branches; are narrow with a silvery green upper side and are distinctly silver underside. The plant itself is covered in incredibly sharp spines that can puncture skin; some up to an inch long so be careful if you're out picking. They grow from seed and also by sending out 'suckers' underground. If you find a patch in the wild they will likely be surrounded by lots of baby plants.
They love to grow in sandy, infertile soils and thrive in areas where few other plants can survive. They are often found forming dense colonies on the salty, sandy coastline of the UK. Sea buckthorn has an ingenious way to survive this hostile and infertile environment and have formed a symbiotic relationship with Frankia Bacteria. The bacteria form nodules on the roots and receive sugars in exchange for fixing atmospheric nitrogen and providing this to the plants. Sea buckthorn is popular plant with conservationists throughout the world. The dense roots bind together the sand; reducing further erosion whilst fertilising the soil, increasing water retention, excluding grazing animals and providing food and shelter for other life.
As with all foraging be respectful and only take a small percentage of what you find. With plants like Sea buckthorn its difficult to do anything other than that. Without bringing in heavy machinery you're generally only going to be able to harvest a few bushes around the edges.
I first encounterd Seabuckthorn as a teenager watching Ray mears excellent 'Wild food' series. Ray and Professor Gordon Hillman collected and juiced berries and explained how they were a vital source of Vitamins in the winter months for our hunter gatherer ancestors.
My first taste of Sea buckthorn was actually a long way from the UK. We were trekking in the Langtang Valley, high in the Nepalese Himalayas near the Tibetan border. I was a little surprised to see them growing there! Its a different species but a close relative of our European version, most likely Hippophae tibetana. In the mountains they juice the berries and sell it commercially. We always carried a bottle with us as it gave us some much needed energy to carry on walking at such high altitudes. Miraculously we also came across a cafe on the walk selling what looked exactly like Cornish pasties; a miracle at 3,500m above sea level.
Since then I've found a few patches a little closer to home and have become familiar with this great edible plant. The Berries are the most popular part but the leaves are also used, mostly as a tea. There is some interesting research looking at the medicinal properties of the leaf. I'm by no means a qualified herbalist/ doctor so do your own research on that one. A friend of mine likes to dry and powder the leaf and uses it as a supplement in foods.
The bright orange berries ripen up in late summer and can remain on the plant throughout the winter. They can be used in all sorts of recipes. Either eaten raw or used to make sour jams, pickles, ice creams or simply juiced. They also infuse very well in alcohol; I particularly like Sea buckthorn Gin (recipe below). They are dioecious, meaning the plants are either male or female. The males produce flowers and pollen. The females produce the fruits and must be fertilised by the males. They're wind pollinated and so the two sexes must be growing close together to successfully produce fruits. Friends of mine grow Sea buckthorn in their forest garden. They had a single plant growing as a huge tree that had been growing for years and sadly never produced any berries. They then introduced a few male plants to their garden and the tree has been covered in berries every year since.
Looks can be deceiving when harvesting Seabuckthorn. Often when you find it the plant will be absolutely covered in bright orange berries looking like an easy harvest.... They're not. Remember those inch long spikes? They make it very tricky to harvest and you have to pay attention to avoid getting impaled. The berries also become extremely squishy when they ripen up and often explode as you pick them; sending the juice everywhere.
If you catch them at just the right time in Late summer the berries can be ripe and still firm, allowing you to pluck them from the plant a little more easily. Later in the year there are a few different techniques that people use.
You can either 'milk' them straight from the plant, squeezing the clusters of berries into a bucket held underneath. This pulp is then strained and seived to give you pure seabuckthorn Juice.
Another option is to use secateurs and prune off the shorter branches covered in dense berry clusters. (this can seem a little destructive to some, but if done respectfully pruning can be very good for plants) These branches are then taken home where you can squeeze them and seive as before or pop the branches into the freezer. Once frozen the squishy berries can easily be knocked off the branches and used whole or juiced.
If you're harvesting leaves it's best to wait until late summer when the berries are fully formed. That way you wont effect the energy going into fruit production. Or harvest from plants with no berries forming in summer which are either male, or unfertilised females. If you can successfully differentiate between male and female plants before the fruit has formed you can begin to harvest leaves in late spring. Wait until the males have flowered and pollinated the females and you can harvest without impacting the fruiting.
One of my favourite ways to use the berries is to infuse them in Gin. The flavours go really well together and it has an incredible colour. I love the simplicity of these sort of alcoholic infusions. This recipe is from Andy Hamilton's excellent book about foraged and homegrown booze, 'Booze for free'
You will need:
A large, clean 2lt jar
600g Seabuckthorn berries
300g sugar (I usually use white as it has a more neutral flavour)
1 litre Gin (Does'nt have to be anything fancy as you're adding a lot of flavour)
Put the gin, sugar, berries into the jar. Shake.
Wait 4-6 weeks, shaking occasionally.
Strain through cloth into bottles.