Silver Buffaloberry is a loosely branched native North American deciduous shrub, growing 6 to 20 feet in height forming a spreading crown that can spread as wide as the plant is tall. When grown in close quarters the crown is slender. The plant readily forms thickets.
Stems are slender with gray-brown bark with raised horizontal lenticels, and slender thorns formed on short stub branches. Older bark is primary brownish with scaly ridges. Old plants can have stems to 10 inches in diameter. Buds on twigs are opposite each other, globose in shape and very silvery in color.
The leaves are opposite, simple with smooth margins, oblong in shape, widest at the middle, with a rounded tip and taper to a short stalk. They are silvery in color on both surfaces due to fine surface hair and have a prominent central vein. Leaves are 1 to 2 inches long and with the width 1/4 of the length. Fall color is yellow.
The inflorescence consists of a stalkless cluster of 1 to 3 flowers at the leaf axils before leaf-out.
Flowers: Silver Buffaloberry is dioecious, that is, male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Each flower is very small with 4 yellowish sepals and no petals. Male flowers have sepals about 2 to 3 mm long, female flowers half that size. Male flowers have 6 stamens, the female flower a single pistil with a knob-like blunt tip. Both flowers have darker yellow colored nectary glands that surround the inner base of the sepals, which are quite attractive to pollen-gathers.
Seed: Fertile female flowers produce a ovoid (football) shaped drupe, 1/8 to 1/4 inch across, primarily red in color although yellow is also known and several nursery cultivars have been released with yellow fruit. Each drupe contains a single seed. Drupes are tart and edible but better and more sweet after going through a freezing cycle but for jelly they are used when tart. Plants produce an abundance of drupes.
Habitat: Silver Buffaloberry is hardy to USDA Zone 2, has limited drought tolerance and needs full sun. In its native habitat it can be found to elevations up to 7,500 feet. The root system is rhizomatous, producing much suckering, forming thickets. This is good for windbreaks but for a landscape specimen, suckers must be removed. Thickets provide plenty of fruit for birds and wildlife, assuming both male and female plants are present.
Names: The genus Shepherdia is an honorary named for John Shepherd (1764-1836), curator of the Liverpool botanic garden and one of the first gardeners to raise ferns from spores. The species, argentea, is from the Latin for 'silvery'. The author names for the plant classification are: ‘Pursh’ refers to Frederick Traugott Pursh (1774-1820) German-American botanist who wrote A Systematic Arrangement and Description of the Plants of North America, and was the botanist who catalogued and described the plants brought back by the exploring expedition of Lewis and Clark. Meriwether Lewis first collected the plant in 1804 at the junction of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers in modern day NE Nebraska. Pursh's work was updated by ‘Nutt.’ which refers to Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) English botanist who lived and worked in America from 1808 to 1841. On his many expeditions he collected many species that had been originally collected by Louis and Clark but lost by them on their return journey. As to the other common names, see the notes of Lewis at bottom of page.
Comparisons: A young Russian Olive Tree (Elaeagnus angustifolia) may be mistaken for Silver Buffaloberry due to the silvery color, but the Olive has alternate leaves and buff colored fruit. Of closer comparison is the Canadian or Russet-Buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis), similar in shape and size, but with less silvery hair on the leaves, no thorns, flowers on stalks, and where the fruit is more round and more russet colored.
Above: Buffaloberry is a tall shrub with a slender crown when in close quarters as shown here, otherwise a spreading crown. 2nd photo - Older bark has horizontal lenticels and scaly ridges. Several of the short stubby thorns are visible in the bark photo. 3rd photo - The inflorescence is a series of flower clusters at the leaf axils before leaf-out.
Below: Male flowers have six exserted stamens. Surrounding the inner base of the sepals is a darker yellow band of nectary glands. Buds on the twigs are opposite each other.
Below: Leaves are widest at the middle with smooth margins and silvery in color due to fine whitish hair, especially on the underside (2nd photo).
Below: The fruit is an ovoid drupe, usually red but can be yellow. Photo ©R A Howard, USDA-NRCS Plants Database.
Silver Buffaloberry is not indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler planted it several times in the early years, first in May 1912 with a plant obtained from the state Agricultural College, then again in 1914 and 1916. It was no longer in the Garden by the time of Martha Crone's 1951 census but Gardener Cary George re-planted it in 1989. It is no longer extant.
In North America Silver Buffaloberry is found in the western half of the continent, at mountain elevations down into New Mexico and Arizona and in the plains states as far south as Kansas. In Minnesota it is known only in counties on the western side of the state where its natural range reaches its eastern edge - elsewhere it has been planted. The only other Shepherdia in Minnesota is S. canadensis, the Canadian Buffaloberry, and that is even rarer - currently on the State Special Concern List.
Uses: Besides food for wildlife, Silver Buffaloberry has been planted extensively for erosion control and for windbreaks in areas where there is sufficient moisture. The berries have been used to make a jelly that some say is better than current jelly. They have a large quantity of natural pectin but need additional sugar. The fruit is edible but sour but should be eaten in moderation as the fruit contains saponins which can affect some people as a diuretic and laxative as saponin is not absorbed by the body. The taste is said to be tart but pleasant and the taste becomes sweeter after a frost.
Notes of Meriwether Lewis from The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: August 24, 1804 [near present day Council Bluffs, Iowa]: "There is a fruit now ripe which looks like a red currant, except that is is double the size, and grows on a bush about ten feet high, like a privy, the size of a damson and of delicious flavor; its Indian name means rabbit-berries." Oct. 23rd, 1804 [on the Missouri just above present day Mandan North Dakota]: " The country consists of . . . . and great quantities of a small red acid fruit, known among the Indians by a name signifying rabbit-berries, and called by the Franch graisse de buffle or buffalo-fat."
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"