Prairie shrub presents prickly problem for growers trying to harvest around thorns

Researchers in Saskatchewan had harvest in mind while developing a new variety of sea buckthorn for prairie fruit growers.

The shrub is well-suited to the prairie environment — and has been commonly spotted in shelterbelts and wildlife habitat plantings for decades — but fruit growers interested in the plant’s berries for commercial food and neutraceutical markets have encountered the same problem: thorny branches and weak skin make the fruit difficult to remove in a timely and cost-effective manner.

It’s among the reasons production in Saskatchewan has been limited.

“When you hear the words sea buckthorn, you automatically think of thorns, right? That’s really an issue that made people shy away from them, because they’re difficult to manage,” said Bill Schroeder, a research adviser at Agriculture Canada’s Agroforestry Development Centre in Indian Head, Sask.

AC Autumn Glow is the latest sea buckthorn variety to come out of the centre and the first since 2005. It maintains the biochemical composition buyers are looking for, essential fatty acids, and vitamins C and E, but has been bred with prairie growers’ concerns in mind.

Researchers are looking at drought and cold resistance first, but also breeding for thornlessness and longer pedestals.

Autumn Glow should produce a fruit that’s almost twice as large as previous varieties, growing from five-millimetre-long stalks.

“So it’s like picking grapes, you’re able to grasp the fruit a lot easier or you can mechanize the harvest a little easier if you have these longer pedastals,” said Schroeder.

It’s a move applauded by grower Betty Forbes of Northern Vigor Berries.

“(It’s) really going to make a difference, I think, to the industry…. We’re going towards trying to get machinery in the orchard and that would be excellent.”

Producers commonly harvest by cutting the branches and freezing them to shake the fruit free, developing a rotation and harvesting biannually to allow regrowth.

The agroforestry centre also has another two varieties in the pipeline.

“There’s interest, but there’s a couple key cogs that aren’t quite in the wheel yet,” said Schroeder, noting consistent production, processing and marketing as issues for growers.

“Hopefully, these new varieties will provide one of the missing parts to the puzzle,” he added.

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