Sea Buckthorn is a dioecious plant. From the Greek meaning “separate households”, dioecious plant populations have separate male and female plants. The male plants are androecious, meaning they produce male flowers, pollen, and no seeds. The females are gynoecious, meaning that they produce female flowers, seeds and no pollen. Both the male and female plants are necessary for the survival of the species.
So, Sea Buckthorn plants are either male or female—which leads us to one of the most common questions we hear at our Mont Echo Sea Buckthorn Interpretive Centre: How can you tell the difference between a male Sea Buckthorn plant and a female Sea Buckthorn plant?
Well, during the summer it can be pretty easy since only the females bear fruit. So if you see a plant laden with bright orange berries, you’re definitely looking at a female Sea Buckthorn. Simple, right? Well, simple if the plant has fruit. If not, it gets trickier.
Don’t assume that if a plant has no fruit, it must be male. Remember that Sea Buckthorn plants don’t even begin producing fruit until they are at least 3-4 years old (if they are propagated from cuttings; if they are grown from seeds it can be 4-6 years before you see fruit!). So if you have a young fruitless plant, it may be a female not yet of fruit-bearing age. Or, if you have a group of all females, you may wrongly infer that you have males since the trees don’t bear fruit. But remember, without a male to pollinate them, the females can’t produce berries.
To make things even more difficult, when the plants are grown from seeds, it’s actually impossible to tell whether they are male or female for 3-4 years after seeding, until their flower buds first form. For this reason, Sea Buckthorn plants are usually propagated from cuttings or with runners from parent plants rather than seeds. Cuttings are always the same sex as the plant from which they are taken, and runners are always the same sex as their parent plants. Since Sea Buckthorn orchards must be carefully designed with a specific male to female ratio, it’s important to know the sex of your plants before planting them. Waiting 3-4 years to see whether your seeds have produced male or female plants before you can plant them is not ideal! And don’t forget, even once you know the plants’ sex, female seedlings take another year or two before they’ll bear fruit!
So, it can definitely be tricky to try to figure out whether a Sea Buckthorn plant is male or female. But the plants do offer clues (in addition to those bright orange berries!) which you can use to help you determine a plant’s sex.
- First, if the plants are large enough, look at the shape of the plant. Sometimes male plants may be shorter and bushier than their taller female counterparts. This is not always the case, however; it depends on the plant varietal. It’s certainly true with several of our European varietals, but many Canadian orchards have taller, more tree-like males.
- Second, look at their buds. Both male and female plants have buds; however, the male buds are much bigger, with 6-8 covering scales, than the female buds. The female buds are smaller, more elongated, and have only 2 covering scales.
- Third, if you happen to be looking at the plant in mid-May, about a week before leaves appear, take a look at the plant’s flowers. They are tiny and very easy to miss, but if you look closely, you might be able to spot them. Male plants have groups of 4-6 tiny yellow apetalous (meaning they have no petals) flowers. Females have single, apetalous flowers consisting of a pistil, a hypanthium, and 2-lobed perianth. The male and female flower buds open at the same time and the males pollinate the females by wind. After pollination, the female flowers slowly develop into the orange berries for which the plant is so well-known.
So, though at first glance it may be difficult to tell if a Sea Buckthorn plant is male or female, by keeping in mind a few key points, you should be able to determine the plant’s sex, even if there are no obvious signs like berries. Look at the plant’s shape, its buds, and its flowers. Is the plant short and bushy or tall and more tree-like? Are the buds small and elongated or large, with 4-6 covering scales? And, if it’s mid- to late May, are there clusters of tiny yellow apetalous flowers? By answering these questions, you should be able to determine whether the plant is male or female—unless it’s an immature plant whose buds haven’t formed yet, of course! In which case you just may have to be patient and wait a few years to find out!