Dear Readers, Bank Holidays always get me confused, and this week was no exception, so, for one week only, the Wednesday Weed will be on Thursday. Normal service will be resumed next week (with any luck).
So, this week’s plant was spotted in my local cemetery, but Sea Buckthorn is by nature a plant of sand dunes and coastal areas. It is quite an impressive-looking plant once the berries come out, but the rest of the time it’s just a mass of long, narrow, silvery leaves and rather nasty thorns. It’s a native plant, Nationally Scarce in its wild state, but becoming increasingly common both as an ornamental and as a method of stabilising sand dunes. Here, though, I must quote from my pal Liz Norbury who lives in Cornwall and has first-hand experience of the plant:
“Much of our local sea buckthorn was planted around 30 years ago to help stabilise the sand dunes, but it can be extremely invasive, and in recent years, our conservation group, Friends of the Towans, has been cutting it back. It’s not the most pleasant task – I’ve found sea buckthorn to be even more vicious than gorse! We’re now involved with the national Dynamic Dunescape project), which aims to restore life to dunes by encouraging natural movement – a complete reversal of the old stabilisation policy – https://friendsofthetowans.co.uk/archive/funding-boost-for-west-cornwalls-dynamic-dunescape/ “
In fact, it’s the extensive root system of sea buckthorn that makes it such a boon in the east and such a pest elsewhere – the roots bind the sand dunes together, and also enrich the soil with nitrogen, a fairly unusual attribute as the plant is not a legume but a member of the Oleaster family.
The genus name Hippophae means ‘shining horse’, and comes from a belief that feeding horses with sea buckthorn would improve their condition and give them glossy coats. The plant was also believed to be the favourite food of Pegasus, the flying horse. One particularly gruesome bit of folklore comes from the time of Genghis Khan, when boiling your enemies alive in oil was apparently a popular entertainment. Recommended oils were olive oil and animal fat, but not sea buckthorn oil which was supposed to have such an array of curative powers that any enemy brought to a simmer would be healed rather than fried.
Sea buckthorn is remarkably hardy, capable of withstanding temperatures of -43 degrees Centigrade, which is handy when you consider that its native range includes the Baltic Coast and the chillier parts of Russia, Ukraine and Mongolia.
Now, as I’ve mentioned previously, anyone who watches ‘The Great British Menu’ will remember the sharp intake of breath when a chef mentions that they’re going to incorporate sea buckthorn into their dish.
“The judges don’t like sea buckthorn”, some clever-clogs will say, and they will usually be proved right. Having never tasted it, I suspect that the berries are probably quite astringent, though Liz says that they remind her of passionfruit. What do you think, Readers? I am happy to be educated, and indeed I would taste the ones in the cemetery were it not that they are right next to the North Circular Road and therefore probably dripping with pollutants, poor dears.
There can be no doubt about the food value of the berries, though – they are richer in Vitamin C than citrus fruits. However, they are notoriously difficult to harvest – the bushes are thorny, the berries are reluctant to disengage from the branches to which they are attached, and the crop is small. One for the dedicated forager, I suspect, though apparently if the fruit is frozen (as it frequently is) it could be removed by a ‘trunk clamp-on vibration harvester’, whatever that is. Even then, there is a danger of leaf and wood contamination and so the berries need to be cleaned by hand.
When pressed, the berries separate into three layers – a thick orange layer, an oily middle layer and then the juice. The top two layers are frequently used for skin lotions and cosmetics, and the juice is popular in some countries, though presumably mixed with something to offset the sourness.
The berries do, however, make for very pretty, orange-tinted food. No wonder the chefs love them.
Medicinally, sea buckthorn has been used for slow digestion, stomach malfunctioning, cardiovascular problems, liver injury, tendon and ligament injuries, skin diseases and ulcers.
Sea buckthorn is also loved by a variety of animals. Fieldfares love the berries, and are not put off by the thorns.
A surprising variety of rather splendid moth caterpillars feed on the plant, including the Oak Eggar (Lasiocampa quercus), who you might reasonably expect to prefer oak.
The Sharp-angled Peacock moth (Macaria alternata) is something of a coastal specialist, often feeding on tamarisk as well as sea buckthorn.
And, finally, here’s a poem. It’s a bit lateral this week:there is a lovely poem by Helen Cruickshank called ‘Sea Buckthorn‘ which is in Scots dialect, and very fine if you can understand it. But I was also very taken by this poem by the Irish poet Frank Kavanagh, called ‘Pegasus’. When I was a child, Pegasus was easily my favourite mythical creature – when we went out in the car I would often imagine him running and jumping and flying alongside us, leaping over motorway bridges and outrunning police cars. So here it is. See what you think.
My soul was an old horse
Offered for sale in twenty fairs.
I offered him to the Church–the buyers
Were little men who feared his unusual airs.
One said: ‘Let him remain unbid
In the wind and rain and hunger
Of sin and we will get him–
With the winkers thrown in–for nothing.’
Then the men of State looked at
What I’d brought for sale.
One minister, wondering if
Another horse-body would fit the tail
That he’d kept for sentiment-
The relic of his own soul–
Said, ‘I will graze him in lieu of his labour.’
I lent him for a week or more
And he came back a hurdle of bones,
Starved, overworked, in despair.
I nursed him on the roadside grass
To shape him for another fair.
I lowered my price. I stood him where
The broken-winded, spavined stand
And crooked shopkeepers said that he
Might do a season on the land–
But not for high-paid work in towns.
He’d do a tinker, possibly.
I begged, ‘O make some offer now,
A soul is a poor man’s tragedy.
He’ll draw your dungiest cart,’ I said,
‘Show you short cuts to Mass,
Teach weather lore, at night collect
Bad debts from poor men’s grass.’
And they would not.
Tinkers quarrel I went down
With my horse, my soul.
I cried, ‘Who will bid me half a crown?’
From their rowdy bargaining
Not one turned. ‘Soul,’ I prayed,
‘I have hawked you through the world
Of Church and State and meanest trade.
But this evening, halter off,
Never again will it go on.
On the south side of ditches
There is grazing of the sun.
No more haggling with the world….’
As I said these words he grew
Wings upon his back. Now I may ride him
Every land my imagination knew.