The flowering season has passed for Canadian Buffaloberry, but as the summer winds down, keep an eye open for its distinctive orange or red fruits.
Buffaloberry – Shepherdia canadensis – is a deciduous shrub, growing 1-3 metres tall with erect to slightly spreading stems. The inconspicuous flowers appear in spring before the leaves have opened. This shrub has disk-shaped, brownish-yellow male flowers and more funnel-shaped, yellowish-green female flowers appearing on separate plants. The oval-shaped, opposite leaves are dark green on the upper surfaces and whitish and fuzzy on the underside, with rust-coloured scales that can flake off. Young twigs are brown and covered in a scaly “felt.”
If you are out walking and want to look for buffaloberry, it grows in various habitats from open to more dense forest areas, streambanks to dry floodplains, meadows, and recently disturbed areas. Soon you should be able to spot the ripening fruits. The 4-8 mm long berry-like fruits can be yellowish-orange to bright red with a characteristic translucency and can remain on the plant well into winter. Each fruit contains a single stony seed, indicating it is, in fact, a drupe and not a berry. Another common name, soapberry, refers to the soapy feeling of the crushed fruits.
During the dormant seasons, buffaloberry provides food for a variety of wildlife, including browse for deer, bison, elk, bighorn sheep, and snowshoe hares, while bears and ruffed grouse feed on the berries. Widespread in much of Canada, buffaloberry has a long history as a food item despite its bitterness. A close relative, Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea), is more commonly grown in cultivation for food purposes. Fruits are used to make jams and jellies and have been used by indigenous peoples in pemmican and stews. When whipped up into a froth and combined with sugar, it makes a traditional “ice cream” treat. Multiple other traditional uses of the fruits range from medicines to soap and shampoo. Care should be taken not to eat too much at once, as it can be a digestive irritant.