ASHVILLE -- It's easy to see why seabuckthorn, the latest health food super fruit, has had such a long run in Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest show.
Seabuckthorn branches have five-centimetre-long thorns that slash your arm like talons if you try to pick their berries. Blackbirds that normally feast on fruit trees won't go near seabuckthorn. Deer refuse to nibble its leaves.
It's also easy to understand why health food enthusiasts rave about it--one small berry contains as much vitamin C as eight oranges.
Seabuckthorn sounds more like the name of the guy riding shotgun (C. "Buck" Thorn) on the stagecoach to Horse Thief Gulch. But the super fruit new to North America is being ranked by some experts at the top in terms of health benefits.
The berry, which about two dozen Manitoba farmers have started growing, is filthy rich in Omega 3 (like fish, helps prevent heart disease and stroke), Omega 6, Omega 9 and Omega 7. The latter really intrigues backers. Omega 7 is clinically proven to help heal mucus linings for women with uterine and ovary issues. Seabuckthorn is also high in Vitamins A and E (great for skin).
Genghis Khan used to feed seabuckthorn to his soldiers--and their horses--for strength and energy heading into battle. At the Beijing Olympics, seabuckthorn was the drink of the Chinese athletes.
In Canada, where the imported crop is extremely hardy, seabuckthorn was initially planted in the 1960s as shelterbelts to stop soil from blowing. The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration supplied the seed.
In the 1990s, a Canadian engineer, Colin McLoughlin, traveled to Asia and found seabuckthorn in everything from food products to skin creams and cosmetics. He toured Western Canada telling farmers he would build a processing plant if they grew seabuckthorn.
Chris Federowich and his late father, Joe, near Ashville and west of Dauphin, were among the first farmers to take the plunge a decade ago. It takes about five years before trees can be harvested for their fruit.
But Chris is discouraged by the results. The fruit trees are hardy, but farmers can't make a "buck" from seabuckthorn, he said. McLoughlin died before he could build his processing plant.
Farmers like Chris can only give the crop away to companies like Farm Genesis in Waskada for product development. If a company develops a product it can sell, it will come back to buy some.
"The problem is most people don't know it exists," said Betty Forbes, president of Northern Vigor Berries in Saskatoon, which sells seabuckthorn products from fruit leather, to skin oil and gelato. Her products are developed by the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie, but aren't available in Manitoba.
Product development is much more advanced in Quebec, Forbes said. Growers like Federowich "need to hang on" because it takes time to establish new food products and markets.
The berry is about the size of a wild blueberry and tastes like a very, very tart orange. There are different varieties of seabuckthorn, but it's not normally a berry you eat off the branch. The colours range from red to orange to yellow, depending on the variety and the time of year.
It's hard to harvest. You have to pull the berries very hard because the stems are strong and then the berries squish in your fingers. Farmers cut off about 70 per cent of the branches, immediately freeze them, then put the branches on a vibrating machine (Federowich uses a "chicken plucker") that shakes off the frozen berries.
Winnipeg health food stores are carrying seabuckthorn products, although not from locally grown crops. Vita Health has a face cream, skin oil, and drink blended with apple and grape juice using seabuckthorn, in addition to gel caps for its antioxidants and other health benefits.