What is a buffaloberry? Whether you heard about it or not, here I take a close peek at the berries that look so poisonous!
At this time of the year, in Canada and northern US, the brightest season is beginning to show itself through ultra-colored leaves and desire to get out of the shade. While strolling in a park along a river your eyes may be drawn to clumps of crimson berries on cute silver trees. They look dangerously poisonous! In fact, I always assumed they are poisonous and ignored them for many years. Until recently. About a year ago, when flipping through the Trees and Shrubs of Alberta book, I came across a photo of this tree. There it said that native people used its berries to make an ice-cream. Pretty surprising!
The tree has a prairie-like name, buffaloberry. Herds of wild buffalo are used to roam on the Great Plains of North America… in the past. In Latin, it is called Shepherdia. It turns out, that biologically, it is a shrub, not a tree.
Of course, I tried the berries the next time I saw them. Although branches are covered with long thorns, it is relative painless and fast to pick them, especially if the berries are large. Some shrubs have larger berries, some have smaller. The berries are sour, mildly, and sweet at the same time. A long-lasting sweet aftertaste is left in a mouth. I would say that tartness can be compared to that of red current while sweetness to that of gooseberry. You can think of them as hybrid of these two! Larger berries tend to be much sweeter. If you are lucky, some are sweet without even a hint of tartness. In some literature, they are described as being somewhat bitter but I would not say that.
Buffaloberry shrubs have been cultivated for more than a century. But not for their berries. For other uses, such as protection of crops against wind and fire, as well as bringing infertile soils back to life. Having said that, there is a chance that soon they will be grown commercially for their berries. The reason is straightforward. These berries might be as nutritious as acai or goji berries!
Health benefits of buffalo berries
According to Ken Riedl and his team who did an analysis on seven trees in 2013, bufalloberries harbor loads of lycopene. That’s what gives berries their red colour. It is a carotenoid, type of antioxidant, the same one as in tomatoes. Another carotenoid that these berries are abundant in, is methyl apo-6’-lycopenoate. It is a derivative of lycopene. The compound itself is a bit more complex than lycopene. Researches didn’t dig too deeply into it yet so its exact effects on humans are unknown.
These berries are also rich in a phenolic antioxidant, gallic acid. This acid is precisely what gives the berries their contrasting characteristic of being tart and sweet at the same time.
Another group of researchers, this time from University of Saskatchewan, found that buffaloberries are remarkably high in ascorbic acid. In 100 grams of berries, about a handful, there is 200-250 mg of vitamin C. That’s almost five times more than in oranges. I don’t know why oranges are known for vitamin C though, they don’t have a lot of it. Anyways, oranges are a good reference point. Curious how camu camu berries, the absolute champion of vitamin C, compare to the buffaloberries? The difference is 10 times, that is, buffaloberries have 10 times less. A long span. But camu camu grow in tropical forests! While buffaloberries are widespread on North American prairies, grasslands and steppes, for many just a few miles away from their homes.
Lycopene, gallic acid and vitamin C are powerful things. They sacrifice themselves and react with free radicals. Otherwise, free radicals react with lipids, proteins and DNA in our bodies giving rise to countless diseases. The most common free radical are superoxide anion, hydrogen peroxide and hydroxyl radical. That’s the guys that antioxidants are after. Antioxidants are true biochemical heroes. They prevent those free radicals from damaging your cell membranes, say, in coronary arteries. They stop excessive cell division, decreasing the chance of tumor formation in skin, for example. In short, to avoid heart diseases and cancers, which kill millions in the western society, a balance between free radicals and antioxidants like lycopene and vitamin C is a must.
A relative of lycopene, methyl apo-6’-lycopenoate, is a secret for now, however, because it’s closely to lycopene, it probably exhibits a similar antioxidant activity.
A lot is said about the goodness of lycopene and Vitamin C, less on gallic acid benefits though. I will give a quick overview. Bharti Badhani and his collegues took a scientific peek at gallic acid in 2015. They discovered that not only it liquidates free radicals, it also encourages death of cancer cells and attacks microbes. In addition, it significantly reduces skin pigmentation and takes away bad cholesterol. It is described as “highly promising therapeutic agent in preventive therapies”.
As I brought up earlier, the buffaloberries are defined to be bitter, but not for me. I guess, that depends on a person. Those who rarely eat bitter foods would catch even the slightest bitterness right away. Anyways, saponins are compounds that give off bitterness. They also form foam, like soap. Saponins… soap, sound similar, easy to remember. That’s the same compound that quinoa seeds are covered in. If you ever washed quinoa and saw the whitish water that is left behind, you know what I am talking about. The soapy nature of berries gave a hint to First Nations a long time ago. Tribes washed their bodies and hair with the mixture of crushed and boiled buffaloberries…
A rare ability to fix nitrogen
Here is one fascinating fact about the buffaloberry tree. It belongs to a tiny group of plants that fix nitrogen. The tree does it with the help of bacteria which hangs out around its roots. Together, they turn nitrogen gas (N2) from the air we breathe into ammonia (NH3). Nitrogen gas is inert meaning it doesn’t react with other compounds, while ammonia does. For you reference, nitrogen is a component of many molecules that make up plants and animals. Without this process, there would be no higher life on Earth and you wouldn’t be looking at the screen right now. In soil, nitrogen is vital. Hence, buffaloberry trees are natural nitrogen fertilizers, so to speak.
First Nations exploited buffaloberries
The buffaloberries might be just discovered by health scientists but First Nations of Canadian West lived next to them every day. The berries have been used to the point if being exploited, could be a strong word, but that’s the word. Fresh, dried, boiled, frozen berries were used in most unimaginable ways. For various sweets, brandy, soups AND soaps, shampoos, potions against flu, indigestion, acne, gallstones, and even… to celebrate the attainment of puberty.
How to use buffaloberries
You can either pick buffaloberries during fall or wait until the frost bites them. They become much sweeter then. Devour them fresh as a snack or dry them in a dehydrator and store for later.
Test their skin-whitening properties on yourself: crush the berries and apply to brown spots, freckles.
If you wish to have such beauty close to yourself and at the same time improve your yard soil, plant it. It’s hardy and requires minimal care. Either buy it in a garden center, it has been on sale as ornamental tree for years, or get a small sapling from the wild. I am sure Nature won’t mind :).
Update (October 4, 2016): Can’t resist writing it down. Be careful when picking the berries. Thorns on these shrubs don’t look dangerous but unnoticeable to you they may get deep into the skin. I had several and some of them couldn’t come out for a week.
Bharti Badhani, Neha Sharma, Rita Kakkar. 2015. Gallic acid: a versatile antioxidant with promising therapeutic and industrial applications. RSC Advances, 5 (35): 27540 – 27557
Ken M. Riedl, Krunal Choksi, Faith J. Wyzgoski, Joseph C. Scheerens, Steven J. Schwartz, and R. Neil Reese. 2013.Variation in Lycopene and Lycopenoates, Antioxidant Capacity, and Fruit Quality of Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea). Journal of Food Science, 78 (11): C1673 – C1679
Sanjiv Agarwal and Akkinappally Venketeshwer Rao. 2000.Tomato lycopene and its role in human health and chronic diseases. The Canadian Medical Association Journal, 163(6): 739 – 744
Richard C. Green, Nicholas H. Low. 2013. Physiochemical composition of buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) and sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) fruit harvested in Saskatchewan, Canada. Canadian Journal of Plant Science, 93(6): 1143 – 1153
V. Lobo, A. Patil, A. Phatak, and N. Chandra. 2010. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 4(8): 118 – 126