March 21, 2021

The Sea Buckthorn: Russia's Berry Best


The Sea Buckthorn: Russia's Berry Best
Tasty berries, prickly tree.  Yulia Khlebnikova | unsplash.com

There’s no doubt that Russia is an excellent country for berry lovers. Any corner store worth half a ruble can offer you at least a handful of different jams from which to choose: strawberry, blackberry, or sour cherry, at the very least.

And if you happen to know the right jam-maker, those options can triple, with things like elderberry, gooseberry, or cloudberry, just to name a few. Some of these berries are too sour to eat on their own, such as the cowberry, which needs to be cooked and drenched in sugar to become edible. Others, such as the feature of our story, the sea buckthorn berry, are perfect to consume just about any way you please. 

So What Are They?

The sea buckthorn berry gets a bad reputation in English from the get-go; I mean, does anything about a “buckthorn” sound the least bit appetizing? In Russian, the name, облепиха, is much more delectable, albeit hard to pronounce. Oblepixha comes from the Russian verb oblepit, which means to enshroud or cover something on all sides. This is because, on a mature plant, the bright orange berries grow densely around the tree’s inner branches.

Bright orange berries tightly line the branch of a sea buckthorn plant.
The origin of the plant's Russian name is apparent. | 
Philipp Deus, unsplash.com

The smaller outer branches contain, like the English name implies, sharp thorns to protect the berries from birds and other scavengers. This makes the task of collecting sea buckthorn berries a difficult one, but it is oh so worth it. The berries have a tangy, almost citrusy taste that’s a bit sour but very good. They contain a single small seed that can easily be spit out or eaten whole. Some people like to eat their berries raw, but many prefer them in a nice jam, pie, or tea. 

Not only are they super tasty, but they are also really healthy for you too. They are an abundant,  natural source of omega-3, and they contain an astonishing amount of vitamin C. Their oil has been used for years as a natural remedy for skin conditions and to brighten the skin.  Russian beauty brands such as Natura Siberica have been using the oil for years, but the Western beauty market has started to pick up on the trend more in recent years as well. Not bad for a berry the size of your pinky nail!

A bright orange cup of tea with a few berries floating on top.
Delicious and nutritious. | Katie Az, unsplash.com

So How Do I Get It?

Unfortunately, the only way you can readily purchase this berry in the United States is in the form of inedible natural skincare products like oil, cream, or sometimes lip balm or flavorless nutritional supplements. If you really want to sample the berry's unique flavor, your best bet is to check your local Russian/Eastern European import store, where you might be able to score a bag of frozen berries or a jar of yummy jam. Sometimes it is also possible to purchase bottled sea buckthorn berry juices or dried berries, but those don’t always have the fresh flavor you would expect from the fruit. 

While it might be tempting to try and grow this plant yourself (and many Russian Americans do), this isn’t always the easiest or best option either. In order for the plant to properly germinate and produce berries, you must have at least one male and one female tree. It’s difficult to tell the sex of the tree until it matures, so you might end up with a whole orchard of sea buckthorn trees until you finally achieve the proper sex-ratio in your stock.

A group of sea buckthorn berry bushes line a field with bright orange berries a plenty.
Where there's one sea buckthorn plant, often there are many. |
Ada Matican, unsplash.com

The other issue is that in many states the plant is actually considered an invasive species and can be harmful to local flora and fauna if grown in excess. Because birds happen to like these sweet and seed-filled berries an awful lot, your sea buckthorn plant might spread offspring much farther than your own backyard. 

So what is there to do? While it's possible to grow and acquire sea buckthorn nearly anywhere in Russia or in several other Northern European or Asian countries (Greece, Mongolia, Germany, the Netherlands, etc.), the best place to eat the berries fresh is in the Altai region of Russia, where some believe you can find the sweetest and healthiest berries in the world.

Which means it's time to finally book that Altai trip!

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