Elaeagnus x ebbingei - A Plant for all Reasons.
Lawrence F. London, Jr. - Venaura Farm - Chapel Hill, NC, USA
mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org http:nuteknet.com/london Venaura Farm
Elaeagnus x ebbingei - A Plant for all Reasons.
Plants For A Future
THE FIELD, PENPOL, LOSTWITHIEL, CORNWALL, PL22 0NG
Telephone Bodmin (01208) 873554 or 872963
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Elaeagnus x ebbingei - A Plant for all Reasons.
Some plants are so exciting and have so much potential for the
permaculture grower, that I really cannot understand why they
are not better known. Just one such plant is Elaeagnus x ebbingei. This
hybrid species of garden origin, the result of a cross between E.
macrophylla and E. pungens (or perhaps E. x reflexa), is commonly grown
as a garden ornamental - in the future I hope it will be extensively
grown as a multi-purpose plant in many permaculture systems.
Before I go into specific details of this plant, I would like
to take a brief look at some of the plants that are related to
it. E. x ebbingei belongs to the family Elaeagnaceae. This is a fairly
small family comprising just three genera and fifty or so species, yet
it contains a very high percentage of plants for permaculture. All of
the species, for example, have potentially edible fruits, though in
some cases they are not that desirable. The three genera are:-
Whilst all members of this family produce edible fruits, those
of Shepherdia contain saponins and can cause poisoning.
Saponins are in fact to be found in several of the foods that we eat
(including beans). They are poorly absorbed by the body and are also
destroyed by heat so cases of poisoning are rare. Nevertheless they
should be treated with some caution. Saponins have the ability to
lather up in water and can be used as soap substitutes - for which
reason one of these species has a common name of soap berry.
- Elaeagnus: This contains about 45 species of evergreen and deciduous
shrubs, some of which become scrambling climbers when planted under
trees. Possibly the best known of those grown for their fruit are E.
multiflora (the Goumi) and E. angustifolia (the winter olive). Ten
species and 15 cultivars are currently offered in British nurseries,
all of them as ornamental plants. I do not know of any nursery offering
cultivars that have been developed for their fruit.
Hippophae: The latest research says that there are 7 quite closely
related species in this genus. H. rhamnoides is our native sea
buckthorn and this is often cultivated in N. Europe and China for its
fruit. This fruit is very rich in vitamin C and many other nutrients,
but is too acid for most tastes (rather like a very acid lemon). It
does make a superb fruit juice and can also be added to other fruit
juices. The Asiatic species H. salicifolia has become the centre of a
multi-million pound industry in Nepal and China where it is cultivated
as a fruit crop, a medicinal plant and for a wide range of other uses.
These are the only species currently offered in British nurseries.
Shepherdia: There are just two species in this genus. They are very
closely related to Elaeagnus differing mainly in having opposite
instead of alternate leaves and also having dioecious flowers (all male
flowers on some plants and all female flowers on others). This genus
probably produces the least interesting fruit of the family. Only one
species is currently available in British nurseries.
The family as a whole contains many plants of interest to the
permaculturalist. Apart from producing edible fruits, most
species also have a wide range of other uses. These include:-
- Most, if not all, of the species in the family have edible seeds.
These are often too small and fiddly to be worthwhile, though several
of the evergreen Elaeagnus species have quite large seeds. These seeds
have a mild flavour, can be eaten raw or cooked and are a rich source
of protein and fats.
All the species have a symbiotic relationship with certain soil
bacteria. These bacteria form nodules on the roots and fix
atmospheric nitrogen. Some of this nitrogen is utilized by the growing
plant but some can also be used by other plants growing nearby. This
means that all members of the family are excellent companion plants.
When grown in orchards, for example, they can increase the yields of
fruit trees by up to 10% (this is especially the case with plums and
nuts which respond more to nitrogenous fertilization).
All of the species in cultivation are quite wind resistant, indeed
the majority of them will grow successfully even in severe maritime
exposure. Since most of the species can also be grown as hedges, they
can provide a superb protection for windy gardens.
The fruit of many members of this family is a very rich source of
vitamins and minerals (especially vitamins A, C and E), flavanoids
and other bioactive compounds. It is also a good source of essential
fatty acids, which is fairly unusual for a fruit. Current research
indicates that consumption of the fruit greatly reduces the incidence
of cancer in humans, not only that but the compounds in the fruit are
possibly capable of slowing or even reversing the growth of cancers
that are already in the body. Most of the research to date has been
with the genus Hippophae, but the fruits of all other members of the
family also contain these compounds.
Elaeagnus x ebbingei.a
Let us return to the species that this leaflet is mainly
concerned with. E. x ebbingei is an evergreen shrub growing
perhaps 5 metres high and eventually about the same wide. When planted
under trees it will adopt a semi-climbing habit and will reach its way
up into the bottom branches. It is very tolerant of pruning, however,
and can be easily kept much smaller. I have seen hedges of it about
1.5 metres tall and only 45cm wide, though this did seem a bit extreme
to me and I feel that allowing at least 1 metre width would produce a
better hedge. Plants can be a little slow to establish in their first
year (do not buy bare-rooted plants since they do not like the
disturbance) but then settle down and can make new growth of 75cm or
more in a year.
The plant is very tolerant of site conditions, the only
situation that is a definite no-no is one that becomes
waterlogged. It far prefers a well-drained soil, is capable of growing
in very poor soils and, once established, is very drought resistant and
will succeed in quite dry soils. It is as happy in full sun as it is in
quite deep shade. I have seen it planted under a line of mature pine
trees that had been planted as protection from maritime winds. With the
passage of time these pines had lost their lower branches and the wind
was funnelling through, causing considerable problems in the garden.
Within a few years the Elaeagnus had filled in the gaps, restoring
shelter from the winds. Plants have also been successfully established
on the top of Cornish drystone walls (these are made with two walls of
stone plus a sandwich of soil between them) and then provide a very
good wind protection. This is one of those species that is extremely
resistant to maritime exposure and salt-laden winds. I have seen it
growing well right next to the sea and giving a very good wind
protection to the garden.
Plants are fairly hardy in Britain, though they are probably
not suited for the coldest parts of the country. They grow well
at Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, though are defoliated in harsh winters.
Plants are, in general, better suited to the southern parts of the
country and I do not know if they will fruit when grown that far north.
The plants are said to be hardy to about -20 c, though of course this
is an arbitrary figure and the actual cold hardiness will also depend
on other factors such as wetness and exposure.
The plants are usually very easy to grow. They have shown
considerable resistance to honey fungus and, apart from slugs
eating out the young shoots of small plants, I have yet to see them
attacked by insects, pests or diseases. The only problem that they do
seem to suffer from is that sometimes whole branches die out for no
apparent reason. This happens most frequently when the plants are
grafted onto the deciduous E. multiflora, so make sure that any plants
you buy are grown on their own roots from cuttings. Any dead branches
should be removed from the plant.
Now to move on to one of the most exciting aspects of these
plants. They produce insignificant but exquisitely scented
flowers in the autumn (October to December in Cornwall) and then ripen
their very attractive fruits in early April (yes, I did mean April).
These fruits are the shape of a rugby ball and can be 2cm or more long
and 1cm wide. They are red with a very attractive silver marbling
effect. Unless fully ripe, these fruits can be quite astringent, but as
they ripen they develop a very acceptable flavour and at their peak of
ripeness they become very pleasant, almost delicious in fact. They are
also very easy to pick - I have managed to harvest 300 fruits in about
5 minutes without any real difficulty from one very good plant.
The fruit does contain a rather large seed, however, but this
is no real problem since the seed is also edible. It does have
an inedible fibrous protective coat - you can either eat both fruit and
seed together and then spit out the fibrous remains or you can just eat
the fruit, spit out the seed then peel it before eating it. The seed
has a very mild flavour, I have detected a subtle taste of peanuts but
even my best friends accuse me of hallucinating.
There still needs to be quite a lot of research carried out
into these plants, they certainly do not fruit well every year
and some plants never seem to fruit. I know of several plants, however,
(including one superb hedge) that regularly produce heavy crops. There
are several reasons why good yields might not always be obtained. Those
that I am currently looking at include:-
Weather conditions. Flowering when they do, it is quite possible that
the flowers and/or pollen can be damaged by cold weather. I feel,
however, that this is probably not a reason for poor yields since some
of the plants I have been recording over the past 6 or more years have
produced exceptional crops every year in both mild and harsh winters.
Fertilization. Two possible problems here. Firstly, it is possible
that there are insufficient pollinating insects around in late autumn
to effect fertilization. I tend to disregard this possibility because I
have seen fruits formed without the flower even opening, suggesting
some sort of self-fertilization. Also, one of the hedges that I monitor
is in such a position (in the middle of 6 lanes of constantly congested
roadway) that it discourages insect fertilization - yet this hedge
always produces a superb crop of fruit. The second reason for lack of
fertilization could be due to the fact that this plant is a garden
hybrid and that cross-pollination is required to effect fertilization.
Whilst this does seem to be a possibility with some of the plants that
I have been observing, it is by no means a general rule. I have often
seen isolated plants with very good yields of fruit. At the present I
am recommending growing the very ornamental variegated cultivar GILT
EDGE together with the closely related E. pungens VARIEGATA alongside
E. x ebbingei since this combination has led to very good yields in a
couple of sites.
Trimming. E. x ebbingei flowers and fruits most freely on the current
years growth, though it does also produce short fruiting spurs on old
wood. If the plants are trimmed in late summer (when being grown as a
hedge for example) then you will be removing most of the plants
potential for producing fruit. The simple answer to this is to only
trim the hedge in the spring, after harvesting the fruit.
Too rich a soil. The very best fruiting forms that I have seen have
been growing under stress, usually caused by poor soil or a site
heavily polluted by vehicles etc. It is also fairly common for small
plants growing in pots to flower and fruit quite well, but then stop
flowering when planted in the open ground. It is quite possible that,
when grown in very good conditions the plants see no need to reproduce
themselves by seed, putting all their energies instead into vegetative
Even without taking into account all of the uses that were
listed earlier, Elaeagnus x ebbingei is a popular and very
useful plant for the garden or farm. Apart from the basic hybrid, there
are also a number of ornamental cultivars, most of them displaying some
degree of variegation:-
COASTAL GOLD This variegated form has been seen bearing a few
fruits on a number of occasions and might be a good pollinator
for E. x ebbingei.
GILT EDGE This cultivar has bright yellow streaking in the
leaves. I have seen this form with a heavy crop of fruit on a
number of occasions and we are recommending it for growing, especially
as a pollinator..
LIMELIGHT Another variegated form, this time with a more
silvery appearance to the leaves. I have seen small pot- grown
specimens with quite good yields, but once the plants are put into the
open ground they seem to put more energy into vegetative growth and do
not flower for a while. We are waiting for our young plants to settle
down before we know if they will fruit in the open ground.
SALCOMBE SEEDLING This, to my eyes at least, seems to be
identical to the type species. It is said to flower more freely
than the type and to have more strongly scented flowers. Our plants are
too young and have not flowered as yet.
There are also a number of closely related species with exactly
the same uses, though perhaps without all of the potential we
feel that E. x ebbingei has. These species are:-
E. glabra. The true species is not often grown, though the very
similar hybrid E. x reflexa is often wrongly labelled as this
plant. I have yet to see this species flowering very freely, but it
needs closer examination.
E. macrophylla. This species is rather similar in appearance to
E. x ebbingei (which is not surprising since it is one of the
parents). It is not very widely grown, though I have seen it with good
crops of fruit on a couple of occasions. We have some young plants in
pots that, in the late winter of 1995, are bearing their first small
crop of fruit. This looks as though it is going to be about the same
size as E. x ebbingei.
E. pungens. This species, so far, is showing the most promise
as another fruit crop and it is probably also the best
pollinator for E. x ebbingei. It is commonly grown in gardens and there
are many named forms, most of which are variegated. One, appropriately
called VARIEGATA, has been seen on a number of occasions with a
reasonable crop, but the other cultivars also merit more
Since E. x ebbingei is a hybrid, it will not breed true from
seed. Seed does, however, offer the opportunity to develop
improved cultivars. It is best to sow fresh seed in the spring in a
cold greenhouse and this will usually germinate freely within a month
or two (259 out of 260 seeds sown in April 1994 germinated within two
months). As soon as the seedlings are large enough to handle they
should be planted into individual pots and then grown on in a cold
greenhouse or frame at least until the following spring before planting
out into their permanent positions. Keep the slugs and snails away, or
they will decimate the plants. Many of these seedlings will be very
poor doers, but you should end up with about 40 - 60% of vigorous
Stored seed can be very slow to germinate. Placing it in a
plastic bag with moist sand and then giving it four weeks
warmth at around 15 - 20 c followed by 12 weeks cold stratification at
about 1 c can help. Stored seed usually germinates quite well if you
In order to produce plants that are true to type, it is
essential to propagate plants vegetatively. Cuttings are the
simplest way and we have had best results with mature wood of the
current year's growth. This is taken in lengths 10 - 12cm long with a
heel during November and placed in a shady position in a frame. Either
put them in individual pots and leave them for 12 months, or put them
all into one pot and then pot them up into individual pots as soon as
roots are seen (towards the middle of spring with us).
Cuttings can also be taken of half-ripe wood, 7 - 10cm long
with a heel as soon as fresh growth is available during the
early summer. This needs more attention - we place the cuttings in pots
in a closed frame in a shady position and keep them humid by spraying
occasionally with water. They take 3 - 8 weeks to root and must be put
into individual pots as soon as possible. It is also possible to
increase stock by layering plants in the early autumn. They take about
12 months to root.
I feel that this species has a huge potential as a commercial
crop in this country. Not only does it have a very acceptable
and nutritious edible fruit and seed, it also has many other uses in
the garden and farm - as a good companion, shelter provider, ornamental
etc. There still needs to be much research, however, in order to
determine the best conditions for obtaining regular and large crops of
fruit. There is also much potential for breeding improved cultivars
with larger fruits (though with care to make sure that the nutritional
value is not compromised).
We need to obtain a better picture of how well this plant is
performing as a fruit crop in Britain. It would be greatly
appreciated if readers of this leaflet could look out for this plant in
gardens etc. and keep a record of how well it grows and fruits. Apart
from the points mentioned earlier in the section dealing with further
research, the following points should also be noted:-
It is especially important to check plants in the autumn to see if
they flower and then again in the spring to see if they fruit and what
their yield is.
Is the plant growing on its own or is it
accompanied by any of the other cultivars and species mentioned in this
report. (A number of the same plants growing together is effectively
one plant since they are all genetically identical.)
Finally, it is
also important to make a note of the growing conditions of the plant
(site, sun, soil type etc.).
If a copy of these records could be sent to me for collation
then I will gradually be able to draw up a clearer picture of
how this plant is performing in different parts of the country and how
to ensure good yields. All information we receive will be made
available to anyone who requests it. Please send your observations to
the address below.
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Plants for a Future, 1995.
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Last modified: Sep 13, 1995