The buffaloberry is a plant part of the Russian olive family (Shepherdia), with the scientific name Shepherdia argentea. Buffaloberry originates from the North American continent, especially the prairie landscapes in the center and north.
It is found in the USA from Ventura County in California, northern Arizona and north-western New Mexico and the way to Canada's provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The buffaloberry has been considered for a very long time as a staple food and important medicinal plant by the Native American Indians. Buffaloberry is exclusively found in North America. Scientists have identified three different species: Shepherdia Canadensis (russet buffaloberry), Shepherdia rotundifolia (roundleaf buffaloberry) and Shepherdia argentea (known as the silver buffaloberry).
The species is a mid-size shrub that can grow up to a height of two to seven feet. The branches are protected by silver thorns and scales with the same color, while their skin is brown. The sour fruits can be yellow or red.
Meriwether Lewis was the first to collect the buffaloberry plant in north-eastern Nebraska, around the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers. It was initially examined and classified in 1804.
The buffaloberry stems are covered in silver scales, as well as the leaves. These grow in opposite pairs and are densely-pubescent, about 2" long and 5/8" wide, with an elliptic shape. Mature branches are covered in exfoliating bark and can have spines up to 2" long. The buffaloberry bloom starts in March, before the leaves actually emerge.
Flowers are very small and consist of a calyx with four lobes. They are yellow, with a tubular shape. After pollination, female flowers become round bright red berries, similar to peas. They have an ovate shape and are about 1/4" long, can be found alone or in clusters and contain a single seed.
Birds already start to consume the fruits at the end of July and in August but they don't become ripe and ready for human consumption until the fall. They are edible but slightly sour and can be eaten both raw and processed as jellies, pies or jams. Despite the popular name buffalloberry, the fruit is actually considered to be a stone fruit.
In dried form, buffalloberries have a texture similar to raisins. They are very acid, which makes them a useful ingredient in the production of wine. The trees that produce the fruits are related to olives and inhabit rough areas of the North American continent that are unsuited for other species, especially in Indian reservations in the West.
The name of the genus comes from the British botanist John Shepherd (1764-1836), who was also the first curator of the Botanic Garden in Liverpool. The epithet refers to the silver color of the branches and leaves and comes from the Latin word argenteus.
Buffaloberries are considered to be a potential super-fruit due to their high nutritive content. Scientists have identified a large number of antioxidants and other bioactive compounds that might be important for human health.
Native American Indians have been using the buffaloberry fruits for a long time, as both food and medicine. Their use has been attested by travellers and historians. The American Indian Health and Diet Plan recognizes three varieties of this typical American species: the silver buffaloberry, russet buffaloberry and roundleaf buffaloberry.
The buffaloberry plant has several additional uses, besides as food or medicine. It contains lycopene and methyl-lycopenoate, which is its acidic counterpart, these two compounds make it useful as a natural food die or shampoo ingredient.
Lycopene is a carotenoid with antioxidant properties that is responsible for the red color of tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. It is known to inhibit the growth of several forms of cancer of the prostate, stomach, lungs and others.
Scientists from the University of Saskatchewan have completed a study on several fruits like the buffaloberry, chokeberry and sea buckhorn, which are found in the American prairies. All of them were found to be very rich in vitamin C, especially the buffaloberries, as well as healthy dietary fibers.
The buffaloberry fruits are well-known for their anti-inflammatory effects. Buffaloberry fruits can eliminate pain from the joints or muscles, arthritis as well as cure other symptoms of inflammation like swelling and sores.
Buffaloberries have many uses attested in both traditional and modern medicine. They can cure skin problems such as acne or irritation. They are a cure for respiratory problems and can even treat serious conditions like tuberculosis.
The buffaloberry fruits have been consumed for a long time as a treatment for reproductive systems of both males and females. It can cure a number of gynecological problems, as well as speed the recovery from venereal diseases. Due to the high vitamin C content, buffaloberries also provide an immune system boost and can reduce fevers and prevent cold.
Besides their old uses as food and medicine, the buffaloberry fruits are also a traditional natural dye. Natives have employed the fruits in numerous ways, from rituals that mark the coming-of-age of girls to the treatment of digestive issues.
Inhabitants of the Grand Basin were known to eat the berries raw and store them dried for later use. They were the key ingredient in a sauce prepared with bison meat. Some tribes depended on the berries as a staple food, consumed fresh, dried or as part of jellies and puddings.
The best known medical uses of the berries were against constipation and other stomach issues, as well as fevers. They were also important for their laxative effects.
Buffaloberry fruits can be eaten raw from hand but a popular way to store them is in dried form, just like currants. They have a nice taste even if quite tart, harvesting them after a period of frost will make buffaloberries sweeter. They can be an ingredient in many desserts and baked goods.
Due to the natural pigments in their composition, the fruits also serve as food dye. Native American Indians also used them to prepare a traditional type of ice cream by mixing the berries in a basket with water and sugar. Buffaloberries can be included in dried cakes, porridge, preserves, pudding, candy, sweetened beverages, relishes, sauces and numerous other recipes.
The species is easy to cultivate and enjoys average soils with good drainage and medium moisture. It tolerates light shade but does best in full sun. Male and female flowers are located on different plants, so it is a dioecious species. Female plants require pollination from a male one in order to produce fruits.
Wet soils with good drainage are recommended but the buffaloberry plant can also grow on poor alkaline soils, as long as they are well-drained. It can survive drought, as well as very poor soil types. It is usually found in large thickets in wet areas along rivers. It can only survive minor flooding and doesn't enjoy too much water in the soil. Both male and female shrubs are needed for fruit production.
Buffaloberries have a content of toxic saponins. However, the amount is low and the body does a poor job of absorbing them, so they are usually eliminated without any harm. Cooking also destroys saponins and breaks them down into other components. Many edible plants, for example beans, also have a content of saponins.
However, eating too many berries can be dangerous because of the large amount of toxins ingested. The usual symptom is diarrhea. Saponins are very toxic to fish, a property used by Native Americans. They placed large amounts of berries in rivers and lakes in order to kill or daze the fish, a primitive form of poisoning.