Herb: Buffalo Berry

Latin name: Shepherdia canadensis

Synonyms: Hippophae canadensis

Family: Elaeagnaceae (Oleaster Family)

Medicinal use of Buffalo Berry:

Buffalo berry was commonly employed medicinally by several native North American Indian tribes, who used it in the treatment of a range of complaints. It is little, if at all, used in modern herbalism. A poultice of the bark, softened by hot water and mixed with pin cherry bark (Prunus pensylvanica), has been used to make a plaster or bandage for wrapping broken limbs. An infusion of the bark has been used as a wash for sore eyes. The roots are antihaemorrhagic and cathartic. An infusion of the roots has been used as an aid to childbirth and in the treatment of tuberculosis and the coughing up of blood. A decoction of the stems has been used as a stomach tonic (it was also used to treat stomach cancer) and also in the treatment of constipation, high blood pressure and venereal disease. A decoction of the stems and leaves has been used as a wash in the treatment of sores, cuts and swellings. A decoction of the plant has been used externally as a wash and rub for aching limbs, arthritic joints, head and face sores. The inner bark is laxative. An infusion has been used in the treatment of constipation. The berries have been eaten as a treatment for high blood pressure. The fruit juice has been drunk in the treatment of digestive disorders. It has also been applied externally in the treatment of acne and boils.

Description of the plant:


2.5 m
(8 1/4 foot)


Habitat of the herb:

Calcareous rocks, banks and sandy shores, usually in partial shade.

Edible parts of Buffalo Berry:

Fruit - raw or cooked. The fruit can also be dried and used like currants. A tart but pleasant flavour even before a frost, it becomes sweeter after frosts. Another report says that the fruit is bitter and is dried, smoked or pressed into cakes. The fruit was a favourite treat of the North American Indians, they would beat it in an equal quantity of water until a foam with a consistency of beaten eggs was formed. It was important that the berries were not allowed to come into contact with anything greasy since this would prevent it becoming foamy. The foam would then be flavoured with a sweet food such as cooked quamash bulbs or other fruits and then served as a special treat in feasts etc. The taste is bitter sweet and is not always enjoyed the first time it is eaten, though it normally grows on one. Nowadays sugar is used to sweeten it and the confection is called "Indian ice cream". The fruit should be used in moderation due to the saponin content. The fruit is about 5mm in diameter.

Other uses of the herb:

Because of its saponin content, the fruit is a potential soap substitute. It is macerated in water to extract the saponins. A decoction of the branches has been used as a hair tonic for dyeing and curling the hair. The branches were harvested in mid summer, broken up and boiled for 2 - 3 hours in water, until the liquid looked like brown coffee. The liquid was decanted off and bottled without further treatment - it would store for a long time without deterioration. To use, the decoction was rubbed into the hair which was simultaneously curled and dyed a brownish colour. The berries, the froth made from them, or a jelly of the fruit, have been eaten as an insect repellent. It was said that mosquitoes were far less likely to bite a person who had eaten the fruit.

Propagation of Buffalo Berry:

Seed - it must not be allowed to dry out. It is best harvested in the autumn and sown immediately in a cold frame. Stored seed requires 2 - 3 months cold stratification. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots once they are large enough to handle. If sufficient growth is made it will be possible to plant them out in the summer, otherwise grow them on in a cold frame for their first winter and plant them out in the following spring or early summer. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, July/August in a frame sometimes work.

Cultivation of the herb:

Calcareous rocks, banks and sandy shores, usually in partial shade.

Known hazards of Shepherdia canadensis:

The fruit contains low concentrations of saponins. Although toxic, these substances are very poorly absorbed by the body and so tend to pass through without causing harm. They are also broken down by thorough cooking. Saponins are found in many plants, including several that are often used for food, such as certain beans. It is advisable not to eat large quantities of food that contain saponins. Saponins are much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes etc in order to stupefy or kill the fish.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.