Buffalo Berry, Silver Buffalo Berry

(Shepherdia argentea)

Dormant male Buffalo Berry
Dormant male Buffalo Berry

Cultivar tested

Species plants

Description and site preference

Type and size – shrub, 12 feet if not pruned
Hardiness zone – 2-7
Exposure – full sun to semi-shade
Soil – wide range, can be nutritionally poor with high pH of 6.8-7.2
Drainage – well-drained

Economic factors

Years to harvest – 3-4
Maintenance – low
Life of planting – 20+ years
Machine harvest potential – unknown
Suitable markets – processed in juice, pies, preserves; dried

Dormant female Buffalo Berry
Dormant female Buffalo Berry

Notable features

Nutritional highlights – the fruit contains low concentrations of saponins and should be used in moderation
Adaptability – high
Pest issues – none observed
Invasive potential – native to region
Environmental benefits – nitrogen-fixing, special value to native bees

Integration characteristics

Shared management –high with other hedgerow plants
Shared equipment – high with other hedgerow plants
Shared processing – probably high
Co-marketing – high with similar products from other fruits

Integration potential – undetermined

Appears to have ecological value for enhancing net economic return in a system.

Buffalo Berry with fruit buds
Buffalo Berry with fruit buds

History and background

There are two species of Shepherdia native to North America: Both are referred to as buffalo berry. Buffalo berry is another dioecious, nitrogen-fixing member of the Eleagnacae family. Both native American species have similar characteristics and overlapping native ranges. The species at the Carandale test plot is argentea, hereafter referred to as silver buffalo berry to distinguish it from Canadensis, hereafter referred to as russet buffalo berry.

Both are winter hardy (Zone 2) and both contain low concentrations of saponins, which can be toxic if consumed in large quantity, but are broken down by thorough cooking. Saponins are glycoside components often referred to as a “natural detergent” because of their foamy texture. This characteristic was used by North American Indians who whipped the fruit with equal quantities of water into a foam with the consistency of beaten eggs. The foam was flavored with sweet fruits and “Indian ice cream” was served as a special treat. Saponins are known to have many health benefits.

Silver buffalo berry was chosen over russet buffalo berry due to availability. As it turns out, silver buffalo berry has several advantages. The fruit is larger, sweeter, more abundant, better flavored and contains less saponins, according to more recent information. It is also said to be somewhat less thorny.

Observations at Carandale Farm

The species plants in the test plot were ordered from St. Lawrence Nurseries in 2007. There was no cultivar designation, and the plants were not sexed. Carandale ordered four plants hoping to have some of each sex. Two of the four did not survive transplanting and were replaced in 2008. One of those did not survive transplanting, so Carandale has three surviving plants, and one with female bloom.

  • Once established, the plants have adapted well.
  • Carandale has not seen disease or insect issues.
  • The female and male plants have a significant difference in appearance and growth. Males have an upright growth habit, small leaves and thorns at the terminal growth point. The female has a sprawling growth habit, larger leaves and no thorns (yet).
  • The male plants are about 6 feet tall, as would be the female plant if branches were held upright. Both have single stems.
  • Without support, much of the fruit would be at or near ground level.
  • There were a few fruit in 2011 but not enough to test. The fruit was red, tart and larger than anticipated (about the size of a small cherry).
  • Branches on the female plant were loaded with buds in the spring of 2012, but the entire crop was lost to freezing temperatures.

Discussion

After Carandale removed autumn olive from the test plot in the fall of 2006, they prepared the site for a replacement crop. Buffalo berry was selected for a number of reasons, though there was little information about it and plant sources were limited. The decision to go with argentea rather than canadensis was source-driven.

With an emphasis on integrated cropping systems, Carandale is looking for fruiting plants that contribute to the overall system without being a threat to the environment. A nitrogen-fixing fruiting crop in the Eleagnacea family that is native to the region seemed like a good fit. The fact that the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation rated buffalo berry as having special value to native bees provided an additional incentive for its inclusion.

There is not much information about the nutritional value of buffalo berry, but other fruit in the Elegnacea family tend to have high and diverse levels of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. The relatively high levels of saponins in buffalo berry could be a two-edged sword because excessive amounts can be toxic. But recent studies have shown that soy saponins inhibit growth of cancer cells (Ellington et al, 2005). Furthermore, research shows that buffalo berry and other berries traditionally used by Native Americans may protect against chronic diseases, such as diabetes (Burns Kraft et al, 2008).

References

Plants for a Future: Shepherdia argentea

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Ellington, AA; M Berhow and KW Singleterry. 2005. Induction of macroautophagy in human colon cancer cells by soybean B-group triterpenoid saponins. Carcinogenesis 26(1):159-167. <http://carcin.oxfordjournals.org/content/26/1/159.short>, accessed 6/25/13.

Burns Kraft TF, M Dey, RB Rogers, DM Ribnicky, DM Gipp, WT Cefalu, I Raskin, Lila MA. 2008. Phytochemical composition and metabolic performance-enhancing activity of dietary berries traditionally used by Native North Americans. J Agric Food Chem. 13;56(3):654-60. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18211018>, accessed 6/25/13.

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