The smell was sweet and sickly, infused with alcohol, and difficult to escape. We tracked it down to sea buckthorn berries, bright orange, over-ripe and ready for eating after the early November frosts. Anywhere there were sand dunes, from the Waddensee coasts of The Netherlands to the Somme Estuary in France (and no doubt beyond), there was sea buckthorn. And where there were over-ripe berries, there were birds – thrushes especially – feeding on them. Even gorging on them.
Sea buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides is a spiny deciduous shrub native to fixed dunes and sea cliffs in Europe and Asia. It occurs in Britain too, especially along the east coast. But I live on the west coast where it is treated as an invasive alien, and the population comprises mostly male plants, which don’t produce berries but spread by suckering. So this phenomenon of the berries was new to me, as was the value of the plant itself.
First, there is the Latin name – Hippophae – from hippo (Greek for horse) and phaos (Greek for shining). In ancient times the leaves were supposedly fed to horses to help them gain weight and to put a shine on their coats. Then rhamnoides meaning like a spear (Greek Rhamnus = spear), a reference to the spiny nature of the plant.
The birds get two things out of the plant. All year round the spiny stems and leaves provide shelter, both from the weather and from predators. In the autumn there is the feast of berries for birds on migration. The berries are particularly oily, and therefore a good source of energy. Fieldfares, redwings, blackbirds, song thrushes and magpies particularly enjoy it. However the berries may be too big for smaller birds such as whitethroats and blackcaps to swallow whole. Whitethroats are long gone south by the time the berries reach the over-ripe stage, though blackcaps could make use of them then. The ripe fruits will also attract insects, and therefore birds that feed on insects.
Goldcrests and similar small birds relish the insects and shelter after a long migration across the North Sea. The leaves are also eaten – mainly by caterpillars such as the ash pug, brown-tail, dun-bar, emperor and mottled umber moths.
It isn’t only the birds that take advantage of the berries. They have long been used by humans across Europe and Asia. Rich in vitamin C, omega 7, and other nutrients, the berries are reputed to have various medicinal uses. Fresh berries are sour, astringent, oily and unpleasant, until after the first frosts. The problem is then how to harvest them through the barrier of the spines. The most effective method is a mechanical berry shaker – it harvests only about 24% of the crop, leaving plenty for wildlife.
Once harvested, there are many uses. Pressed juice separates into three layers: the upper two contain a lot of the fat, and are used for skin creams and other cosmetics, while the sediment and juice in the bottom layers can be used in syrups, pies, jams, teas, wines and liquors. The juice is often mixed with apple or grape juice, and the resulting beverages are rich in vitamin C and carotenoids.
Sea buckthorn is popular as a garden plant. The roots support nodules that fix nitrogen, making it a good pioneer plant on nutrient-poor dry or sandy soils. it has been grown as a shelter belt in many areas, particularly near the sea. Its ability to withstand gales and salt spray makes it good for stabilising sand dunes – helped by its tendency to produce suckers from roots. However, this does mean it can become invasive in areas where it isn’t native, and it must be managed so that it doesn’t get out of hand. Hence, although I live by the coast, I don’t see this plant very often.
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