Sunday, 10 December 2017

SEA BUCKTHORN (Hippophaë rhamnoides)

SEA BUCKTHORN (Hippophaë rhamnoides)
Female shrubs of Sea Buckthorn laden with berries
(Marram Grass in foreground) on huge dunes.
(Camber Sands, January 2006)
In Britain this spiny shrub rarely grows much taller than 1-2 m. Its roots sucker prolifically so whole populations can represent single clones and around the coasts of Britain it is sometimes possible to find the bushes forming vast impenetrable thickets on dunes and occasional cliffs (for distribution maps see Online Atlas of theBritish and Irish Flora). However, habitat loss has greatly reduced its abundance in recent centuries, particularly on inland river gravels where taller thickets may once have resembled the Buckthorn-rich ‘tugai’ scrub-woodlands that still occupy vast areas of river-lain sands and gravels in valleys meandering through the arid steppes of Central Asia (Thevs 2011).  

The bushes sport silvery-grey foliage, grey bark, and ranks of short, leafy, spine-tipped side-branches. Male and female flowers grow on separate plants. The female flowers form livid orange berries that smother the bushes from late summer right through the winter and into late March. These berries seldom exceed 7-8 mm, they have succulent flesh and single shiny brown pips.

Another year that produced a heavy
crop. (Camber, November 2003)
Huge harvests in good years
Sea Buckthorn can provide massive yields for two (or even three) years; however, these will normally be followed by a much poorer year. Occasional years with low yields can also be caused by persistent wet weather during March and April, which is when the pollen is released from the male shrubs (NB: unlike some other members of this family, Sea Buckthorn flowers are wind-pollinated).  

Another heavy crop.
(Camber, September 2008)
In the bumper years single stands can produce prodigious yields. The berries completely cover branches of second year (and some third year) wood, and it’s not unusual for more than 100 berries to grow per 10 cm of stem, and these can stay on the bushes from late August, right through autumn and winter, and into early March. No other edible British berries remain available in the fresh state for so long. For the first two to three months the berries, although juicy, remain fairly firm. Thereafter their flesh becomes progressively more liquid and to the point when the berries burst the moment they are touched, although in the later stages they start to taste somewhat stale. The small quantities of berries produced in very poor years tend to grow mainly on third year wood, which generally has a lot of brittle, dead spines, making the few berries very difficult to gather.
Thilaka Hillman gathering near-frozen Sea Buckthorn
berries in  a year with very meagre yields,
and many berries growing on 3rd year wood.
(Camber, November 2010)

Nutrients galore!

The berries are simultaneously both oily and juicy, and when consumed fresh they are very sour with a unique tang that many relish but that some can’t abide. They are exceptionally rich in micro-nutrients. Alexander Eidel’nant (Eidel’nant 2003) of the All-Russia Research Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants in Moscow rates Sea Buckthorn as: “the record-holder among medicinal plants in its high content of vitamins, polyphenols, isoprenoids and other biologically active compounds.” It is also referred to by ethnobotanist Alexei Shreter (based at the same institute) as: “the ultimate tonic” (Shreter pers. comm.).

Berries picked in September 2012 while the
flesh was still firm, but the seeds were still soft.
Only a small amount (c. 100 ml, approximately equivalent to a third of a tea-mug) of the mashed fruit gathered early in the season can contain many times the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamins C and E (Plants For A Future [PFAF] database). The fruits also contain concentrations of beta-carotene equivalent to 200 times the RDA of vitamin A (Lanska 1992; this poses no risk of hypervitiminosis as it is present mainly as the safe beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A) along with other carotenoids such as alpha-carotene, zeaxanthine, lycopene and lutein. Tony Leeds and his team at Kings College London analysed berries that were gathered in January and these proved to contain 64 mg of Vitamin C/100 g[i]. Although this is more than is present in fresh oranges, it is far less than the 900-1500 mg/100g recorded in berries that are gathered in late summer. Hunter-gatherer diets would thus have been enhanced by these very high concentrations of vitamin C only when the berries were relatively young.
The berries being 'milked' from the bush.
The fruits also contain a broad spectrum of antioxidant flavonoids (Rop et al. 2014), 3-8% oil (including long-chain poly-unsaturated fatty acids such as ALA of the omega-3 series and GLA of the omega-6 series), tannins, malic and tartaric acids, and minerals such as potassium, iron, boron and magnesium (Gutzeit et al. 2008; Suryakumar et al. 2011; Zeb 2004). More oils are found in the seeds and these contain higher proportions of unsaturated fatty acids than the oils obtained from the fruit flesh, and they are less subject to deterioration with prolongation of fruiting season (Antonelli et al. 2003; Yang and Kallo 2003). Also, among the non-glycerides in the seeds a new group of biologically active sterylglycosides has now been identified (Mörsel and Steen 2003). 

The ultimate tonic and much more….
Traditional Sea Buckthorn berry products in the former USSR include oils, honey-sweetened conserves and cordials, which are all widely consumed for their health-giving properties. In Moscow in the late 1980s news of fresh consignments in the shops spread so rapidly that the shelves were soon bare (Hillman pers. comm.). Traditionally, Sea Buckthorn products were especially esteemed in Tibet, Central Asia, Western China and in Mongolia where Genghis Khan and his army used them to maintain stamina, resist infections and treat saddle sores and wounds. With reference to Genghis Khan’s fondness for the products of Sea-buckthorn, John Wright notes: “Here is a man who, judging by the fact that he has 16 million living descendants, faced a gruelling daily schedule and needed to keep his strength up. If it’s good enough for Genghis, then it’s good enough for me.” (Wright 2009).

Sea Buckthorn products are reputed to normalise lipid, protein and carbohydrate metabolism, and are used medicinally in treating malignant tumours, gynaecological and gastric disorders, skin diseases, burns and other injuries (Varshney et al. 2003; Xiaoning et al. 2007), in normalising the body’s immune system (Mishra et al. 2008), and in countering the damage to liver tissue in cases of hepatitis (Артёмова 2001). Sea Buckthorn oil also exhibits strong anti-bacterial and anti-viral activity (Tolkachev and Shipulina 2003), is strongly anti-oxidant (Richter 2003), and acts as an anti-X-ray agent (Wang et al. 1989). It is also found to stabilize blood-sugar levels in diabetic mice (Zhou 2005), and is claimed to counter memory deterioration (Doubey and Agrawal 2003). 

Clinical trials and other research are now in progress to substantiate and provide explanations for many of these claims. For example, reported improvements in circulation (particularly capillary circulation) appear to be linked with Sea Buckthorn oils inhibiting platelet aggregation and increasing HDL (‘good’) cholesterol without increasing LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol. This is attributed to the action of unique combinations of acylglycerols of particular fatty acids (including the unusual omega-7 long-chain mono-unsaturated fatty acid: palmitoleic or octadecenoic acid [18:1 cis-11]), sterols, tocopherols, tocotrienols and carotenoids (Kallio et al. 2002). They suggest that equivalent combinations are also responsible for improving dermatitis and, based on experimental animal models, the protection of gastric mucosae and even the curing of gastric ulcers (Varshney et al. 2003; Xiaoning et al. 2007). Other reported health outcomes can be attributed to the array of additional antioxidants such as proanthocyanidins (Fan et al. 2007) and a range of rutin compounds and other flavenols. Eidel’nant concludes:  “It is difficult to name a sphere of medicine in which Sea-buckthorn products are useless” (Eidel’nant 2003).

Harvesting methods
The berries are best harvested by stripping them from the stems straight into buckets. This can be done by gripping the base of a fruit-covered branch and sliding the hand up the stem. In so doing most of the berries burst and most of the flexible spine-tipped side branches simply bend upwards and don’t embed in the collector’s flesh. However, in poor years collection of the few berries, which mainly grow on third-year wood, can cause harm to the collector because of the many spines that are dead, brittle and inflexible. Nevertheless, wounds bathed in the berry-juice heal amazingly quickly.
The fruits are generally ripe by early September and although they stay on the bushes right through the winter, they are tastiest and most nutritious while they are still young. At this stage it is possible to eat them whole when freshly harvested, as the seeds are still soft and chewable. However, for these first two or so months, harvesting the berries can be somewhat slow and laborious. This is because the berries remain firmly attached and are still too tough-skinned to burst so many have to be picked individually. In addition, the leaves are still on the bushes and so while stripping off the berries the leaves tend to get in the way. Then once harvested, these intact, somewhat tough-skinned berries don’t burst when boiled and ‘popping’ them manually can be time consuming. However, the hard-won, intact young berries can also be eaten raw and are especially good with yoghurt (but are storable in this form for only a few days).

From mid to late October onwards the berry skins are less resilient and the flesh becomes ever more liquid. At this stage the stripping action causes the berries to burst in a single sweep from the bottom to top of each stem, and the juice and pips to be released immediately for collection; harvesting this way can be remarkably fast and efficient. By mid-November the berries often start to taste slightly stale and especially if they’ve been exposed to frost. The concentration of some of the micronutrients (especially vitamin C) also starts to decline.
The berries and juice being sieved 
Making cordial
To make a cordial from the berries the harvested juice first needs straining with a coarse (c. 5 mm2) mesh to eliminate the bits of twig, leaves and dry, mouldy fruits. Once this has been done the juice can be strained from the mixture of skins, attached flesh and seeds using a finer (c. 2 mm2) mesh. When decanting the juice followed by the fruit-skins (etc.) be careful to leave behind the sand. The juice should immediately be boiled for a few minutes to immobilise the enzymes that would otherwise destroy some of the vitamins and other micro-nutrients (NB. this stage is very important; for more details see entry on Rose hips.) At the same time water should be added to the strained-off skins (etc.) and then boiled for a few minutes before straining again with a fine sieve, after which the mixture should be squeezed to remove as much liquid as possible. Muscovado sugar can then be added to preserve it and make it more palatable as a diluted cordial. Finally, bring the liquid to the boil again, bottle in clean, brown-glass bottles, and refrigerate.

The strained juice being boiled for 5-10 minutes as
soon as possible after harvesting in order to immobilise
enzymes that would otherwise destroy freshly released vitamins.

Other fruit products
In Scandinavia and Finland the berries are used to make conserves or jelly, which are traditionally eaten with fish. While in Russia and the Ukraine the berries are prepared in the form of a sweetened conserve, an oil, or as a diluted cordial. However, the juice should be consumed with caution, as for some people it can be strongly purgative especially when taken on an empty stomach.

The seeds as food
The seeds are also edible and nutritious, although the seed-coats (‘testas’) have a bitter after-taste. Once the fruits have been boiled, strained and squeezed, the seeds remain mixed in a mass of fruit skins. However, they can be recovered by spreading the mixture to dry, rubbing it to detach seeds from dry skins, and then winnowing out the skins. The seeds should then be lightly toasted to make the testa brittle (they should be removed from the heat before they start to produce sharp cracking sounds, as they can char within a few seconds). The toasted testas can be removed by gently rolling the seeds between heavy stones and then winnowed. The dehusked seeds can be ground in a pestle and mortar, added to something sticky and binding such as fresh hawthorn puree, and cooked as dampers (unleavened bread traditionally cooked on an open fire).
The dross that has been sieved
out from the juice is dried before
processing the seeds.
The dried mixture of seeds, leaves and
berry skin are charred in a bowl using some
dry grass and bracken while stirring to distribute the heat.
The charred mixture is rubbed thoroughly.
The seeds are then winnowed.
The seeds after winnowing.
The seeds are ground to make
the nutrients more accessible.

Prehistoric and historic usage

Charred remains of seeds of Sea Buckthorn berries were identified from Late Palaeolithic levels at Theopetra Cave in Greece by the late Maria Mangafa while working at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London[ii]. This sizeable cache could represent seeds that were either separated during juice extraction and discarded on a fire as waste, or that were strained-out of the harvested juice and accidentally charred while being toasted in preparation for dehusking and consumption. Buckthorn pollen (Hippophaë sp.) has been found in coprolites (either human or dog) at the Dutch Neolithic site of Schipluiden (Out 2008). Less equivocal evidence of prehistoric consumption are the macroremains found in Bronze Age levels on sites in Tajikistan and Tibet (Dong et al. 2016; Spengler and Willcox 2013). Seeds of Sea Buckthorn are also reported from 3rd-4th century Roman deposits at site of Castricum-Oosterbuurt in the Netherlands (Brinkkemper and de Man 1999).  More recent use is documented in historic accounts of indigenous groups in Siberia (Badmaev 2009; Voronina 2011).


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[i] Anthony Leeds is now a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Surrey University;

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