American Silverberry

Elaeagnus commutata

Herbs gallery - American Silverberry

Common names

  • American Silverberry
  • Silverberry
  • Wolf Willow

American silverberry (botanical name Elaeagnus commutate) is basically a perennially growing shrub. Also known as the wolf-willow, this plant has its origin in the western as well as boreal regions of North America (southern regions of Alaska via British Columbia east to Quebec and southward to Utah and throughout the upper regions of Midwestern United States to western Minnesota and South Dakota). Generally, the American silverberry is found growing on a variety of soils ranging from moist to dry sandy as well as gravel soils in meadows, steppes, or edges of woodlands.

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The maximum bloom of American silverberry generally occurs during the beginning of the summer. The plants start bearing fruits and seeds in summer and it prolongs till the fall. This herb does not retain its leaves year to year. When compared to majority of plant species, the life span of the American silverberry has a relatively moderate, while its growth rate is rapid. Actually, the American silverberry plants are undersized trees or shrubs that grow up to a height of anything between 1 meter and 4 meters. These plants bear wide lance-like leaves that measure anything between 2 cm and 7 cm in length. The leaves have a silvery hue on both sides and come with small, but dense white scales.

American silverberry plant bears aromatic yellow flowers, each having four-lobed corolla measuring about 6 mm to 14 mm in length. The fruits of this plant are actually egg-shaped drupes measuring anything between 9 mm and 12 mm in length. The fruits are also covered with silver-hued scales. The pulp of the fruit has a flour-like texture and it encloses a solitary seed.

It is worth mentioning here that as many as 30 to 40 species of Elaeagnus genus exist in different regions of the world and all these shrubs have a rapid growth pace. Nearly all of them have their origin in Europe as well as Asia. These shrubs are ideal for growing as hedges since they can resist the wind very effectively. All the silverberry plants produce small ovoid fruits and lancelet leaves, which are both silver colored. The American silverberry species called Elaeagnus Commutata is a shrub that is indigenous to North America. The Elaeagnus Commutata is generally grown in the form of a decorative plant mainly for its silver hued foliage.

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The fruits as well as the seeds of the American silverberry are edible and they are consumed either raw or after cooking. The unripe fruit is extremely astringent, but this goes away when the fruit is completely ripe. In fact, the American silverberry shrub belongs to the olive tree family and similar to legumes, it possesses the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. For ages people have twisted the fibrous bark of this tree to make very sturdy ropes. In addition, the fiber from the bark of this shrub is also used for weaving clothing as well as blankets.

The fruits of the American silverberry plant are a delicacy for songbirds and the sharp tailed grouse. During the winter months, this plant is an excellent source of food for the sharp tailed grouse. It is worth mentioning here that the American silverberry is a vital food source for wildlife and it supplies more than one-fourth of a moose's diet, especially during the winter months in Montana. In addition, this plant also serves as a food source for elk and deer. This aside, in places like North Dakota, these shrubs provide shelter and nesting locations for mallards as well as several passerine birds.

Parts used

Bark, fruit, seed.

Uses

The American silverberry plant possesses a number of therapeutic properties and, hence, has specific applications in treating several health problems. For instance, traditionally people have been using a potent decoction prepared from the shrub's bark blended with oil in the form of an ointment for children enduring frostbite. Currently, studies have been undertaken to examine the berry as a food with a potential for decreasing the risks as well as occurrences of cancer. In addition, the plant is also being examined to find whether it possesses the ability to reverse carcinogenic growths.

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Traditionally, people belonging to a Thompson tribe used a decoction prepared with the roots of American silverberry and sumac roots internally with a view to cure syphilis. However, currently this medication is considered to be poisonous and its use may result in the patient becoming sterile for life.

Aside from the therapeutic uses of American silverberry, the fibrous bark of this shrub is often used by locals to make strong ropes and also weave the fiber for clothing and blankets. In addition, the fiber is also used to make baskets, mats and headbands. The tribe known as the Blackfoot used the berries of this shrub to make soap. Similarly, tribes like Thompson, Blackfoot, Arapaho, Cree and Tanana employed the berries and the seeds of the herb to make beads. An extract from the small yellow aromatic flowers of the American silverberry is used to make perfumes as well as massage oils.

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Culinary uses

The fruits of the American silverberry are ovoid drupes which are edible both in raw condition as well as after cooking them. They are dry and mealy. Ideally, they can be added to various soups as a thickener or used to make a delicious jelly. However, you can only enjoy the fruit raw when it is completely ripe, because the raw fruit of American silverberry is extremely astringent. This fruit encloses a solitary seed, which is also edible. The seed of this fruit can also be consumed raw or after cooking. One can also eat the seed along with the ripened fruit. However, the seed case is somewhat fibrous.

Habitat and cultivation

The American silverberry shrub can be grown very easily since it thrives in nearly all types of soils, provided the drainage is good. However, this plant loathes being grown on shallow chalky soils. Silverberry has a preference for a light sandy soil, which is just reasonably fertile. This plant also succeeds in infertile as well as arid soils. The American silverberry needs to be grown in full sunlight. These plants can endure drought well and are extremely resistant to the wind. The American silverberry is an extremely resilient plant that has the ability to endure temperatures to roughly -40°C.

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It has been found that the American silverberry (Elaeagnus commutate) enjoys a symbiotic relation with specific bacteria present in the soil. These bacteria develop nodules on the roots of the plant and help to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. While a fraction of this nitrogen is used by the growing American silverberry plant itself, the remaining is utilized by other plants in the vicinity. This way, American silverberry shrubs help other plants in their neighbourhood. It is a wonderful companion plant, especially when cultivated in orchards, as it helps to augment yields from the neighbouring fruit trees by as much as 10 percent. Interestingly enough, many people often mistake Elaeagnus commutate plants with another species called E. angustifolia, though the fact is that they are very different. The American silverberry produces suckers readily. Often they send up the suckers at some distance from the original plant and these give rise to new plants as well as new sources of food. The American silverberry is particularly resilient to onslaughts by honey fungus.

The American silverberry plants are mainly propagated from their seeds, which are ideally sown in a cold frame immediately after they are mature. Preferably, you need to sown them at such a time that they germinate during the end of winter or beginning of spring. The seeds are very slow germinating and it may usually take about 18 months for them to sprout. In fact, stored seeds germinate more slowly, and they usually take over 18 months to sprout. However, applying a warm stratification for about a month, which is followed by three months' cold stratification, may help the seeds to germinate earlier. Usually, the seeds of the American silverberry germinate well when you apply these processes. Once the seedlings appear and they have grown to a sufficient height and are easy to handle, prick them individually and plant them in separate pots. You may plant the young plants outdoors when they have grown to a height of no less than 15 cm.

Alternatively, American silverberry shrubs can also be propagated by cuttings of semi-mature wood. Ideally, each cutting should be anything between 7 cm and 10 cm and have a heel. Make the cuttings between July and August and plant them in a cold frame. You can also make cuttings from the mature wood of the current year's growth. In this case each cutting should be about 10 cm to 12 cm in length along with a heel and they should be planted in a cold frame between October and November. Usually, growth of new plants from such cutting is somewhat sluggish and, hence, you need to leave them for about 12 months to produce new plants.

This plant can also be propagated via the layering process, which should ideally be undertaken in September or October. This process of growing new plants is also very sluggish and may take about 12 months. Even the relatively larger suckers of the plant can be used for growing new plants. These suckers can be planted directly into their permanent locations. However, it will be better if you plant the smaller suckers in pots and allow them to grow in a cold frame till they develop roots and are well established.

Constituents

Chemical analysis of the fruits borne by plants belonging to the Elaeagnus genus has shown that they are loaded with various vitamins and essential minerals. In fact, these fruits contain vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and flavonoids, in addition to a number of bio-active chemicals. In addition, these fruits are a reasonably good essential fatty acid source - something that is quite strange for any fruit.

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