Monday, September 14, 2009

Sea berry: To invade or not to invade - an invasive species question

A recent spate of news articles is introducing a new miracle ornamental plant, sea berry, Hippophae rhamnoides L, for desert and dry ecosystem landscapes. The plant is not new to horticulture or agriculture and has been researched for its production value in Russia and China as well as Canada and the United States since the 1940’s. A Nevada Cooperative Extension facty sheet notes that “[s]eaberry or sea buckthorn is called “Siberian pineapple” in Russia, because of the juice that is produced from the berries. It has been produced for centuries in Europe and Asia as a food and medicine source. The first commercial factory processing seaberry was established in Russia in 1940. Since then China has become a leading producer with over two million acres in production, with about 200 processing factories producing more than 200 products. Canada, Germany, Japan, and several northern European countries are working with seaberries as a potential crop.”[1]

As land use demands and population expectations change, horticulture tries to address the demands through research and study that is aimed at traditional gardening needs and wants. The landscape and nursery trade continues to find plants that use less water and therefore meet the consumer surface definition of eco-friendly. Just as the gardening industry looks for plants that are pest and disease resistant so the public can use less pesticides and be “greener”, so when appropriate the nursery professionals look for plants that need less water or irrigation while providing major informing services of the local ecosystem such as color, form, and texture.

In fact, the gardening industry also touts the providing service benefit of the new introduction. The fruit of seaberry is rich in vitamin C and A. The plant produces “…high-quality medicinal oil that is made from the fruit and used in the treatment of cardiac disorders, it is also said to be particularly effective when applied to the skin to heal burns, eczema and radiation injury, and is taken internally in the treatment of stomach and intestinal diseases.”[2] Other uses include charcoal, cosmetic, dye, fuel, oil; pioneer, soil stabilization, and wood.[3] Web site can be found that note that “…it can be used as a pioneer species to help the re-establishment of woodland in difficult areas.”

However this blog is not called invasive notes for nothing. In spite of the assurances, a few nagging issues lurk in the article by Melanie Dabovich of the Associated Press. First there is the quote at the end: "It can only propagate through suckering, which can be controlled.” The implication is that unlike other troublesome plants this one does not spread by seed. However, the first part of the article talks all about the fruit bearing capacity and use of the plant: "They actually drink the berry juice in Europe, China, Russia. The (seed) oil is used in cosmetics and creams, and it's very popular - so popular that China is starting to export." Something is wrong here, but of course desire trumps caution every time; market preference wins out over public value.

A friend of mine observed that the species “…suckers like crazy, forms dense thickets, tolerates a wide range of soils, is cold/heat tolerant, and fixes nitrogen.” None of these things are necessarily a problem and none are a sure sign of an invasive species, but many invasive species share these attributes. Invasive species decisions and policies are a challenge because the most cost effective action is to prevent their introduction. But how do you know what is invasive and what is not for your particular ecosystem? And given all the benefits of this species what economic harm would be done if we prohibited its introduction into the dramatically changing landscape of the desert southwest? Who is financially responsible if the species turns out to be yet another invasive problem?

Invasive species are shown to significantly impact natural resources and other ecosystem services. The impact is translated into economic, aesthetic and human well being assessments. Increased population pressures as well as the accompanying increase in global trade has create new pathways for introduction and greatly increased the incidents of repeated introductions of harmful species. A major pathway, but far from the only one, for pathogens and pests (diseases and insects) as well as new invasive species is the increase international in ornamental species for landscape and garden use. The majority of introduced plants are not harmful (thought they may not contribute to the local ecosystem entirely they are contributing some positive services) to the economy but provide enhancements to the quality of life.

So we need to ask two deceptively simple questions about Hippophae rhamnoides L. – seaberry: How much chance of harm is acceptable; and, how much harm are we willing to allow?

[1] Jason Davison, Area Plant and Soil Specialist, Central/Northeast Area & Willie Riggs, Eureka County Extension Educator. Testing Seaberry as an Alternative Crop in Nevada. Nevada Cooperative Extension.
[2] Matthews. V. The New Plantsman. Volume 1, 1994. Royal Horticultural Society 1994 ISBN 1352-4186 A quarterly magazine, it has articles on Himalayacalamus hookerianus, hardy Euphorbias and an excellent article on Hippophae spp.
[3] Copyright (C) Plants For A Future, 1996-2008.


Anonymous said...

It is in the same genus as the Russian Olive, which is invasive in the inter-mountain west, and seaberry LOOKS just like the #@$$ Russian Olive. I planted some Seaberry on my farm for upland bird habitat in southern Idaho: the soil is very saline and its tough to get anything to grow. We'll see if stays where it is supposed to.

Tom said...

When talking "invasive" Seabuckthorn is not. I have done extensive research on this and that is the conclusion. One of the most damning articles stating that it is came from the Botanical Environmental Network in Canada. This organization listed the plant as one of the top 15 most invasive plants in Canada. I contacted the scientist who they cited in the article and he would not confirm their conclusions. Quite the contrary, the plant which is invasive is the Glossy or European Buckthorn. This has been a source of confusion and really bugs me since I like Hippophae ramnoides so much. You are correct that it can sucker, some varieties more than others. You are also right that that isn't a concluding bit of evidence of evasiveness. The only place where control has take place is in the British Isles where it could be successfully argued the plant is native. The controls have taken place on dune locations and that is has been done for control, not elimination of a bad thing. The plant when used as erosion control works wonders. Erosion is controlled, soil fertility improved, and water retention in the soil vastly improved. Cut back in these coastal environments, Seabuckthorn supported soil creates a perfect habitat for more plants (and the fauna they support) to exist where they would not be able to otherwise. I should add that their is no evidence of the plants being established in new areas via birds eating the berries and excreting the seeds in new areas. There are many problematic plants, but Seabuckthorn is not one of them, it is not invasive.