Sunday 24 September 2017

A fruitful trip to the seaside

BRIGHT: Sea buckthorn
BRIGHT: Sea buckthorn

Gerry Daly

If you take a seaside walk during the festive season, you might well come across the orange berries of the sea buckthorn. Or you might not see berries at all, even if you see the bushes, because only female plants carry berries.

Sea buckthorn is plentiful in isolated localities but by no means common. You could visit 10 or 20 beaches and not see it at all. It occurs mainly on the east coast, in counties Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford, and in some western parts, notably sandy seaside areas of Sligo, where it was planted as a windbreak and soil stabiliser to prevent the erosion of sand dunes by waves and wind.

Coastal sand dunes are prone to being blown out by strong winds. This is part of the development of dune systems and a certain level of dune destruction and re-making is necessary. However, this process was not widely understood in the 19th century when sea buckthorn was planted. It is somewhat ironic that present-day conservators are busy trying to stem the spread of sea buckthorn in threatened natural habitats. Their Victorian antecedents were enthusiastic planters of this interesting bush or small tree, which is native to China.

Called sea buckthorn, it is related to wild buckthorn and alder buckthorn. Its botanical name is Hippophae. It is capable of making a small tree to about six metres, exceptionally to 10 metres but not directly in the teeth of coastal gales. In these places, it is more likely to be about two or three metres tall and wide.

Plants are either male or female and sometimes a whole swathe of sea buckthorn would appear to be all-male, apparently arising from a few male bushes that were originally planted.

The berries form in early autumn and are not obvious when the leaves are still on the bushes. Only when the leaves fall can they be seen. The leaves are small, about five centimetres, and relatively narrow, somewhat like a willow but not as elegant. They are covered with waxy scales that protect them from gales.

Hippophae is not much grown in gardens but it can be trained as a handsome small tree, olive-like in appearance, especially on light sandy soil that does not suit some trees.

If you want berries, you will have to have a female tree and a male tree to provide pollen.

It is very hardy, completely frost-proof and the berries have been used to make juice that is very high in vitamin C, and has been used in herbal medicine.

Sunday Independent

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