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Elaeagnus x ebbingei - A Plant for all Reasons

Elaeagnus ebbingei

5m (16ft) by 5m (16ft)
Some plants are so exciting and have so much potential for the permaculture grower, that it is surprising 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 we hope it will be extensively grown as a multi¬purpose plant in many permaculture systems or woodland gardens.

 

Relatives.

Before we go into specific details of this plant, it is interesting to consider 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 suitable  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:

  1. 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. There do not appear to be any nurseries offering cultivars that have been developed for their fruit.
     
  2. Hippophae:      The research says that there are 7 quite closely related species in this genus. H. rhamnoides is the British 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.
     
  3. 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.

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.

 

Other Uses.

The family as a whole contains many plants of interest.  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. There is research that indicates that consumption of the fruit greatly reduces the incidence of cancer in humans; also that 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

Let us return to the species that this chapter 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. It is possible to produce a hedge 1.5 metres tall and only 45cm wide, though this is a bit extreme and  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. It has been seen 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. It can grow right next to the sea and in such a position would give very good wind protection.

Plants are fairly hardy in temperate areas, though they are probably not suited for the coldest. They grow well at Edinburgh Botanic Gardens in Scotland though are defoliated in harsh winters. Plants are, in general, better suited to milder areas and they may not fruit 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, they are not usually 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. 

 

The Fruit.

E. x ebbingei produces insignificant but exquisitely scented flowers in the autumn and then ripens its very attractive fruits in spring. 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. They are also very easy to pick, and a single plant may produce several hundred fruits.

The fruit does contain a rather large seed, however, but this is no real problem since the seed is also edible, with a very mild flavour. 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. 

 

Further Research

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. Ken Fern knew of several plants, however, that regularly produced heavy crops, including one superb hedge. He thought that there are several reasons why good yields might not always be obtained:

Weather conditions. Flowering when they do, it is quite possible that the flowers and/or pollen can be damaged by cold weather. However, he felt that this is probably not a reason for poor yields since some of the plants he monitored for several years produced exceptional crops every year in both mild and harsh winters.

Fertilization.  There are two possible problems here. Firstly, it is possible that there are insufficient pollinating insects around in late autumn to effect fertilization. However, Ken tended to disregard this possibility because he had seen fruits formed without the flower even opening, suggesting some sort of self-fertilization. Also, one of the hedges that he monitored was 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 observed, it is by no means a general rule, as some isolated plants still produce very good yields of fruit.  A combination of the very ornamental variegated cultivar Gilt Edge, together with the closely related E. pungens Variegata alongside E. x Ebbingei led to very good yields in a couple of sites.

Trimming.   E. x ebbingei flowers and fruits most freely on the current year's 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 plant's 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 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 growth. 

 

Cultivars.

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.

 

Related Species.

There are also a number of closely related species with exactly the same uses, though perhaps without all of the potential of E. x ebbingei. 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.
  • E. macrophylla. This species is rather similar in appearance to E. x ebbingei (which is not surprising, since it is one of the parents).
  • E. pungens. This species has shown 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.

 

Propagation.

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. 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 not succeed, but you should end up with about 40 - 60% of vigorous plants.

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 -20C followed by 12 weeks cold stratification at about 1C can help. Stored seed usually germinates quite well if you are patient.

In order to produce plants that are true to type, it is essential to propagate plants vegetatively. Cuttings are the simplest way, and mature wood of the current year’s growth gives the best results. This is taken in lengths 10 - 12cm long with a heel during winter 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 individually as soon as roots are seen (towards the middle of spring in warmer parts of Britain).

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 approach needs more attention - 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.

 

Conclusion.

This species has huge potential as a commercial crop. 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).

 

Database

The database has more details on these plants: Elaeagnus x ebbingei, Hippophae rhamnoides, Hippophae rhamnoides turkestanica

      You can download this page as a PDF

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