The Environmental Value of Sea Buckthorn

With its bright orange berries and long silver-gray leaves, Sea Buckthorn is a very beautiful plant. For this reason, it has long been used as an ornamental plant in landscaping and gardens, particularly in Europe. Yet Sea Buckthorn is much more than just a pretty plant with nutritious berries. It also has significant environmental value and has been used around the world for soil and water conservation, land reclamation and rehabilitation, reforestation, establishment of wildlife habitats, fuelwood production, soil improvement, and farmland protection.

Because it is able to withstand harsh climates and adapt to a wide variety of environments, grows quickly, has strong coppicing and suckering habits, and is an actinorhizal plant (meaning it has the capacity to fix atmospheric nitrogen and thus enrich the soil), Sea Buckthorn has long been considered an ideal plant for soil conservation and land reclamation. A number of projects utilizing Sea Buckthorn for these purposes have been implemented in countries around the world. Poland, Canada, Hungary, Russia, Romania, and Germany have all used Sea Buckthorn for reclamation of marginal land, particularly open-cast mines and post-industrial dumps and wastelands, prevention of soil erosion, and reforestation. But perhaps the most impressive large-scale use of Sea Buckthorn for soil and water conservation and land reclamation is the desertification control project undertaken in Jianping County, Liaoning Province, Northeast China.

Historic documents reveal that this area was once green and forested, but indiscriminate logging over the centuries had led to a forest coverage rate of only 1.9% and serious land degradation. In fact, the eroded area in Jianping County had reached 81% of the total area by the 1950s. By this time, the semi-arid climate, frequent disasters such as floods, droughts, and storms, and the degraded natural environment had made Jianping County one of the poorest areas in China. After confirming that Sea Buckthorn was the most competitive species to reforest the area, control water loss and prevent further soil erosion, 67,000 hectares of Sea Buckthorn were planted in the County. The impact on the environment has been significant; vegetation cover was increased from 4% in the 1950s to 34% in the 1990s, water run-off was reduced by 90%, and soil erosion declined by 70%. And as a result of the establishment of the Sea Buckthorn forests, the local economy has been bolstered and several wild animal species, including pheasant, hare and fox, have found a habitat.

Similar projects using Sea Buckthorn have also been undertaken successfully in Mongolia and in other parts of China.

In Canada, Sea Buckthorn has also been used for the purposes of soil and water conservation, land reclamation, and soil enrichment. Sea Buckthorn was originally brought to Canada in the 1930s from Siberia for use as a shelter-belt plant to provide wind shelter and farmstead protection and to prevent soil erosion in the prairie provinces. These Sea Buckthorn shelterbelts also effectively modify the climate surrounding the farmsteads, increasing crop yields, reducing energy costs for home heating, reducing noise, filtering pollutants, trapping snow in the winter, and attracting beneficial wildlife.

In fact, Sea Buckthorn has been used in several wildlife habitat improvement programs in the Canadian prairies, such as the Rafferty wildlife mitigation project near Estevan, Saskatchewan. Initiated in 1989, this project involves the re-vegetation of 5,000 acres of agricultural land with grass, trees and shrubs, including 50,000 Sea Buckthorn plants. The plants help ensure that local wildlife has adequate food, thermal cover, and protection. Since the start of the project, wildlife populations (particularly upland gamebirds and songbirds) have increased significantly. Sea Buckthorn is a preferred nest site for songbirds and provides excellent escape cover for upland gamebirds.

Clearly, Sea Buckthorn is not just a pretty plant with nutritious berries. In addition to its aesthetic, nutritional, and economic value, Sea Buckthorn also provides significant environmental benefits which have been made it a valuable plant for many projects around the world, from combating desertification and preventing soil erosion in China to improving soil quality in Germany to reclaiming wastelands in Poland to protecting farmsteads and enhancing wildlife habitats in Canada.

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