Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) has been getting quite a bit of press lately as the newest superfood, but it’s nothing new. Permaculture enthusiasts have been planting sea berries for years now because they’re a hardy nitrogen-fixing perennial with few pests and high yields of tasty berries. The fact that those tasty berries are also particularly healthy is just a nice bonus.
Also known as sea berry, sand thorn and sha-ji, sea buckthorn is hardy down to zone 3 (-35 F) native to both Europe and Asia. The plants are dioecious, which means that individual bushes are either male or female. Only the female bushes bear fruit, and it’s generally suggested to plant one male sea buckthorn bush for every 6 females to ensure good pollination.
The plants themselves are somewhere between a shrub and a small tree (20 ft tall) in growth form, and very spikey. The spines ensure they’re deer resistant, and they’re often planted densely to form an effective hedge barrier around properties.
Since they’re nitrogen-fixing, sea buckthorn can grow on marginal soils. It’s often planted to stabilize eroding banks, especially along roads since it’s a remarkably salt tolerant plant.
While sea buckthorn plants are remarkably tolerant of a variety of conditions, including poor soils and drought. That said, they prefer soil with good drainage and don’t thrive in boggy conditions.
They also require full sun to bear good crops of fruit. Trees may limp along in part shade, but they won’t bear in those conditions.
The flowers are small and hardly noticeable, but when the plants become covered in fruit in the fall it’s quite a show.
Propagating Sea Buckthorn from Cuttings
Since only female plants bear fruit, sea buckthorn is often propagated from cuttings to ensure the sex of the resulting plants. Some growers even go as far as propagating female plants from cuttings, and then grafting a single male branch onto each female bush for pollination. This ensures that there’s a male plant available nearby for pollination, but none of the planting space is taken up by an unproductive male plant.
To propagate sea berries from hardwood cuttings, take cuttings 6” from last year’s growth while the plant is dormant (late fall to early spring). Soak the cuttings in water covering about 2/3 of their length, changing the water every day to prevent stagnation.
After about a week, roots should begin to form. Once the roots are about an inch long the cuttings can be planted indoors in pots for about 2 months until the plants are fully rooted and ready to be transplanted outdoors.
While many hardwood cuttings like grapes and elderberries benefit from the addition of rooting hormone, studies have shown that it’s completely unnecessary for propagating sea buckthorn cuttings. The study found that small-diameter cuttings from 1-year-old wood (2 to 4 mm in diameter) had a 97% rooting rate without any hormonal treatment.
I’ve also read that since buckthorn suckers readily, especially when cut to the ground, that propagating from root cuttings has a high success rate.
Growing Sea Buckthorn from Seed
We purchased 10g seed in bulk from Strictly Medicinals Seed, and they suggest a few different planting options.
Either scarify the seed on medium grit sandpaper, then sow in fall or very early spring outdoors. Or, scarify and give 30 to 90 days moist refrigeration and sow indoors in a warm environment. Transplant to successively larger pots until the plants are large enough to be transplanted outdoors.
The seeds are scarified by placing them on a sheet of sandpaper and then sandwiching another sheet of sandpaper on top. Rub the two pieces together to scrape up the outside of the seed coats. This mimics going through a bird’s digestive tract and helps encourage the seeds to sprout.
Other sources I’ve read recommend cold stratification for the full 90 days, followed by soaking in water for 2 days. When planted, the seeds germinate best at the soil surface exposed to light rather than buried.
For that reason, some people germinate them in Ziploc bags set in the sun with a bit of potting medium or a paper towel to hold moisture. Once the seeds germinate they’re then moved to pots.
Strictly Medicinal Seeds notes that it’s a “dependable and fun germinator” so we had high hopes for our 10-gram packet with an estimated 1,800 seeds inside. After scarification, I completed 90 days of cold moist stratification on moist paper towels in the refrigerator.
After that, I scraped the seeds off the paper towels and onto seedling trays. I completely forgot about the light exposure part and sprinkled 1/8 to 1/4 inch soil over them.
The seeds didn’t care, and though I never counted to determine actual germination rates, we must have 1000 sea buckthorn seedlings at this point…
Uses of Sea Buckthorn
For the most part, my kids eat sea buckthorn right off the plant. I can’t say they particularly enjoy the berries, as they’re absurdly tart. They seem to get a kick out of how sour the berries are, especially since they’re planted near other much sweeter fruits like black raspberries and thimbleberries.
Nonetheless, they’ll pull those bright orange berries right off the plants again and again. Smiling with anticipation before each one goes in their mouths, and then puckering up afterward. Much laughter ensues, and then they do it again.
Humor in the eyes of preschoolers…
Needless to say, sea buckthorn is not popular for fresh eating.
Since it’s gained “superfood” status sea buckthorn can be found in all manner of products marketed by companies trying to capitalize on the hype. Anything from foods and juices to cosmetics and skincare products.
There are plenty of health claims related to sea buckthorn, but the most reputable seems to be related to skin health and mental function. The seeds contain an oil that’s marketed as “sea buckthorn oil” which is an effective treatment for all manner of skin disorders. That same oil is also purported to be an effective sunblock.
The fruit themselves are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, along with a long list of amino acids and antioxidants. They’re second only to rose hips in total vitamin C content too.
The fruit is quite tart, and it’s often either pressed into a juice that’s sweetened and drunk or made into a sweetened jam. That said, there are plenty of people that eat them out of hand. Here are a few sea buckthorn recipes to try with your first harvest:
- Sea Buckthorn Tea with Honey & Cinnamon
- Sea Buckthorn Chutney
- Sea Buckthorn Oxymel
- Sea Buckthorn Cheesecake
- Sea Buckthorn and Apple Jelly
Sea Buckthorn Living Fence
At this point, we have a number of sexed sea buckthorn plants on our land to use for hardwood propagation. I also have a large envelope of seed ready to be cold stratified before this coming spring.
Our plan? A sea buckthorn hedge around our new roughly 1-acre permaculture garden. Right now our permaculture plantings are spread out across about 3-4 acres of land, nothing in high density.
Now that we’ve cleared a new zone we’re planning a dense permaculture food forest, hedged against deer by a dense fence of sea buckthorn.
Will it work? I’ll let you know in a few years…
Would this thrive in zone 6b?
They should, everything I’ve read says they grow well in zones 2 to 8.
I’ve been trying to have a sustainable life, and it’s been difficult, partly because I accept invasives, Yes, that sounds odd, but you have to consider how impossible(a word I avoid, but in this case, fully valid) they all have been to even put a dent in their varied populations, so why not try to live them and learn them, perhaps help encourage local vegevores to develop a taste for them(about the only way to do that is to raise captive populations of each, however many kinds you desire to do this with, and try them on a little of any invasive, mixed with their usual food, and see what survives. Feed any survivors increasing concentrations of whatever invasive(say, ailanthus, tree of heaven, nearly the only tree living in the Detroit area, there’s such a large population of them), until they are eating it exclusively.
And just because I’m mentioning ToH, it also makes for a nice crafting wood, having a wonderful pale yellow wood with a very fine grain, glues well, holds shape, but is prone to cracks and checks, and tends to warp easily, so no structures made of the stuff.
²Do they need to be fenced from deer?
They are actually deer resistant so it would not be necessary to fence them.
How do you distinguish male from female plants grown from seed
You can’t until they’re in flower, unfortunately…
in the spring before they get the leaves on, look at the buds on the branches. the females looks like two big ‘lobes’ with a small middle one. the males looks like more of a cluster of tiny buds.
Thank you such an amazing blog I just came by! I was just thinking this morning about having SB fence and here you write about it… Will be looking forward how it all goes – you are supposed to plant it on southern sides?
It doesn’t fruit well unless it has full sun, so I’d suggest somewhere with enough sun to plant an annual garden (think tomatoes). We planted some in a part shade spot and they grow big, but never fruit there. If all you want is fence, a bit of shade is ok, but if you want fruit too it’s gotta have great sun exposure. Good luck!
Máx M Will
Can sea buckthorn become invasive?
I have read that it’s an issue in some places. Part of the problem is that when people try to remove it they brush hog it in mass…which results in it sending up dozens of new shoots. Someone told me their parent’s brush hog a hillside of them every year trying to remove them, and the problem just gets worse. Ours are distinct plants and have not spread at all, by seed or runner. Cutting them off and leaving the roots just encourages out of control growth, which is something to be aware of. If I wanted to remove them I’d just dig them up, but I don’t, so they just peacefully sit there not spreading.
Yes, there are records of it becoming invasive, beyond our human capacity to control it once in the wild, beyond one homestead. One bird can spread one seed of it. Let’s make informed cost/benefit analyses before propagating!
Can you cut off the top to restrict their height (say to 8 feet or so) to use as a barrier but still get fruit if they are in full sun?
Yes. I have friends who brush hog theirs every few years and they still fruit like mad. Trimming them, especially low to the ground, causes them to send off suckers from their roots and come in denser like a hedge. It actually stimulates their growth. I don’t know if you’d get suckers for a hedge trimming them at 8 feet, but it definitly won’t prevent them from fruiting if they’re in full sun (since mowing them doesn’t seem to prevent fruit).
Thanks so much for this information! At what size did you plant your seedlings out? And are they hardy enough to go out in any season?
The best practice would be to take your cuttings in late fall or early spring while the plant is dormant and then they can be transplanted after about two months or once the roots are fully developed in the spring.
I’m just across the river in NH, and want to set out some sea berries this fall. Do you happen to know a source for plants in southern to middle VT/NH? Thanks for the great, informative post.
This is the closest place I was able to find. It’s Elmore Roots in Elmore, VT. https://www.elmoreroots.com/
Hi – I’m in England, zone 8, and a few years ago planted a mixed hedge containing 3-4 sea buckthorn plants. The hedge took off after about 3 years and last year the sea buckthorns had loads of fruit which I harvested and rroze in October. I trimmed about 1-2 ft off the height of the whole hedge, and trimmed back the sides a bit in December/January.
Whole hedge is still shooting outwards and upwards and needs trimming again, but this year not a berry in sight on the buckthorn! Does it only fruit on old wood? Or maybe something has killed off the male plant although no evidence of that. I’ve never noticed flowers but will look out for those next spring.
I found this article that talks about pruning Sea Buckthorn. It does say that 80% of the berries are born on second year wood so you want to maximize second year wood from year to year. https://onegreenworld.com/sea-berry-growing-guide/#:~:text=Plants%20are%20pruned%20in%20late,year%20basis%20is%20the%20goal.
I would like to harvest the leaves for tea. Do you know if the leaves of the male plant are just as nutrient rich as the female plant?
That is a good question, and I honestly don’t know much about using the leaves, since we mostly stick to the fruits.
Is it too late in the year to plant Sea Buckthorn in Connecticut? Also, do you know of any online nurseries you trust that will ship Sea Buckthorn?
You can plant them dormant in the fall and that shouldn’t be an issue, especially with this warm fall we’ve been having. It just needs to be before the ground freezes, and make sure you mulch them in good.
My goat love grazing on them and we are trying to grow a hedge around our property as well. I enjoy the fruit and leaves in tea. I suck on the fruit after it has steeped in the tea. and spit the seed out into a jar that I am going to try to scarify and grow next spring.
Hi, how can I get , I mean to bay , 10 000 one or two years old sea buckthrom seedlings? I am from Latvia (LV) and I have big problems to bay it her. I have a plan to start a bissunnes whith sea buckstrem in land 17 ha! I hope You can help me to be succesifull. Thanyou and I waiting answer!
I believe you can order them from strictly medicinal seeds, not as seedlings but as just seeds. Hopefully, there aren’t export restrictions on them, but they’re easy to grow from seed. Here’s where to get them: https://strictlymedicinalseeds.com/product/sea-buckthorn-hippophae-rhamnoides-seeds/
If you really want seedlings, I’m not sure of anywhere that’s able to ship internationally. I’d strongly suggest just starting the seeds yourself, they grow very fast.
Do you know if you can grow them in pots outdoors. And, do you get berries the first year if starting from seed?
They definitely won’t produce berries the first year, they need to get quite large to produce. You’re looking at a minimum of 3 years still some fruit, longer for a good amount of fruit. You can just grow them in pots (or direct seed) outdoors in the fall.
When you grow them as a hedge, what distance do you leave between plants?
Anywhere between 3 and 5 feet seems to be pretty standard.
Does anyone have any figures on how many pounds of berries can be produced from a single tree that is say, 10feet high? I’m looking into the idea of producing juice/oil as a business, so need some data. Any help appreciated!
There isn’t a ton of information out there on the yields associated with them but I did find this article which gives a bit of information. I hope it helps. https://naturalingredient.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/seabuckthorn_may2001.pdf
Is Sea Buckthorn suitable for “hedgelayering”?
Do you mean “hedge laying”?
Hedge laying is an ancient and complex art that is being revived. It is the technique to grow trees as hedges. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedgelaying. take a look at the photo from Germany, North Eifel. You can let some grow as trees and “hedge” the others. The hedge can be any height. It is a technique of leaving bark and sapwood on one side. The English examples show how they have used it along lane ways. The Germans tend to use it to divide paddocks. It provides habitat for inscts and birds, can be used to stop erosion, provide diverity for stock feed etc… It is goat proof. I think is both a craft and a holistic interaction with nature. In England it is used along lanes so while one side is bare the ennergy of the plant goes to growth on the paddock side. Some trees are better suited and longer living than others. If sea buchthorn is grown like gooseberries with lots of canes it is likely unsuitable. Does anyone have any exprience with sea buckthorn and hedge layering? I have another question: Is sea bukthron wild pig proof? I live in Queensland , Australia. Sea buckthorn is nitrogen-fixing is a huge plus in my books.
Yes, I just wanted to make sure that we were on the same page because your original comment said “hedge layering” rather than hedge laying. I did see an article where it specifically talked about using sea buckthorn in hedge laying. I think it’s such a great practice. Here is one article that I found that specifically mentions the sea buckthorn. http://www.the-organic-gardener.com/laying-hedges.html I am not sure about the wild pigs but maybe someone else might have some input.
I bought berries frozen for smoothies. I kept the seeds left behind by the blender. Put them.in some water and a few days later some actually sprouted. I am in Philadelphia. We r in July with 90 degree weather. I am thinking of just planting them i. Full sun on my windowsill. Think it ll grow? Also, would this berry grow in Puerto Rico climate. I am from Russia and I believe they grow wild in Siberia. My grandma used it the oil all her life and had amazing skin into her 80’s. I also heard stories of berry juice being used on cuts and burns.
If the berries have sprouted, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t continue to grow. The information that I have found says that they grow best in zones 3-8 but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t grow in warmer climates like Puerto Rico. It would certainly be worth trying.
97% success with cuttings…? Edible acres have been experimenting for years and say seaberry is extremely difficult to root from cuttings.
Every homestead is different. Perhaps it’s a difference in soil or climate.