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Wolfberry update.

My article titled "Foraging for wolf berries" in the January/ February, 2009 issue of COUNTRYSIDE was of interest to many people. It resulted in phone calls or e-mails from 31 different people. These folks all had to go to some effort to get the author's address or phone number, as they were not provided in the article. All wanted to know more about raising wolfberries. Hopefully what follows will fill in some of the blanks, answer many questions and add information that might help the would-be wolfberry grower.

The words wolfberry and goji berry are used interchangeably in this article. There is some contention about the use of the names as they are associated with the products marketed under the names. Wolfberry is a translation from Cantonese into English and has nothing to do with a wolf. The word goji is reported to come from the Mandarin Chinese. The genus species names are similarly irrelevant for this article.

One COUNTRYSIDE reader who contacted me was Vicki Rainey ( She was different from the other 30 people in that the 30 were interested in raising wolfberries for just their own use while she was interested in obtaining parent plant stock to sell. Because fresh wolfberries are very delicate, they do not hold up when shipping and dried berries and juice are relatively expensive. Vicki believes that when and wherever possible, people should be growing their own plants and harvesting and processing their own fresh fruit. Wolfberries are one of only a few exotic superfoods that can be grown in North America.

Growing your own wolfberry plants is an excellent resource those working toward better heal on a budget. They can be grown in a flower pot in the kitchen or in a porch planter, for a hedge or windbreak, or as a berry patch in the garden. Also wolfberries would be the perfect nutritional value-added crop when grown in a community garden cooperative.

The wolfberry starts found in the Utah desert, as discussed in the previous wolfberry article, have survived nearly 150 years with no care. This same plant strain has proven very hardy and productive in at least one high mountain valley in Northern Utah. Once these plants are established, they can withstand drought and can withstand cold temperatures to -25[degrees]F degrees.

Clearly there is a major market for both plants and berries. Plans have been made to have the Utah plants DNA identified and a nutrient analysis will be completed. As with any crop, soil makes a difference in what ends up in the fruit. At about $16 a pound for dried berries, and a going price for commercial sourced plants selling bare root starts for around $15, and potted plants from $20 to $50, it would be great to have a local source for more affordable plants with documented nutrient value. Kits, CDs, and how-to-grow booklets are in the early stages of production.

Those supplying dried berries from China would not like major competitors here in the United States. Especially when local producers can grow and supply both fresh and dried berries. One supplier contacted indicated he was sure the Utah plants were not the real thing. At best, he thought they might be Lycium chinense, not Lycium barbarum. This would not be a big deal as both species are commercially grown and imported from China. The chinense species is supposedly less nutritional than the barbarum. From what we have been able to determine the chinense species does not grow as tall and has more thorns. The Utah plants have very few thorns and grow more than 10 feet tall, which matches the identity of Lycium barbarum.


The Atlas of The Vascular Plants of Utah shows no locations for L. chinense, but quite a number for L. barbarum, the most interesting being a location near Promontory Point, Utah. This was where the first east-west railroad met and where the Chinese railroad workers either planted seeds or dropped dried goji berries. More than 10,000 Chinese workers were the keys to completion of the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. These workers were reputed to be very hard workers. They also did not have the bad habits of most white laborers and ate healthy food, which included wolfberries from China. Wolfberries in their diet probably contributed to their ability to work so hard under harsh working conditions. In an intensely followed competition, the Chinese set a record of completing 10 miles of track in one day. They were largely competing with Irish and German workers trying to do the same on the eastern portion of the railroad.

As an interesting aside, look up "Phantoms of Dove Creek" on the Internet. This will provide some clues as to how the Utah wolfberries came from China and became established in the Utah desert. This whole saga has initiated the authorship of a historical fiction about the Chinese railroad workers, who became known as "Celestials."

Now here are a few comments on growing wolfberries. The slowest, but simplest way to get starts is from seeds. Most health food stores sell dried berries as do many Internet sites. One pound would contain many thousands of seeds (each berry has about 20 seeds). Soak a few seeds in water over night. In the morning squish each berry with your fingers to separate the seeds from the pulp. The good seeds will sink and you can pour off the pulp. Either dry the seeds for future planting or plant right away. Put only one or two seeds in each plant container. The germination rate is very high. Do not plant a lot of seeds in a flat for transplanting as the small plants do not transplant well. Growing from seed to producing plant appears to take at least three years: one year in a pot, the second year in the field, and the third year to get up to bearing size. Rooted cuttings and bare root starts planted in early spring can produce fruit in the fall of the same year.

Potting soil was used for our first starts from seed, cuttings and bare root starts. This was a hard lesson learned. This soil was too acidic and the plants did not do well. Soil pH should be between 7.6 and 8.2. Garden soil here in Northern Utah has a pH of 7.8 and the Chinese commercial growing areas have a pH of 8.0 or more. The West Desert location has an even higher pH.

Mature plants send out horizontal runners, from which shoots emerge. Shoots that come up in the paths between rows of mature plants can be dug up and transplanted as a source of new plants. Locally, plants given away from May to the end of August last summer had nearly 100% survival rate, which is amazing in that the shoots look like bare sticks. These shoots need to be watered regularly after planting, but it is possible to over water established plants. One 30-foot long row of four-year-old plants produced about 500 pathway-starts this spring plus new growth shoots for rooting. Once established, it appears that you may have a perpetual source of more plants. This also could be evidence that the plants could be very invasive and hard to eliminate.

Northern Utah is in hardiness zone 4. This spring there were heavy frosts up to the first week of May. The wolfberries were fully leafed out, as were the blackberries. The frost did not touch the wolfberries, but killed the blackberries. Even the 10-foot long wolfberry vines that had leaves to the very ends were untouched by the frost. It will be interesting to hear from people in North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Pennsylvania to see how well wolfberries grow in warmer and more humid climates.

Drying the fruit remains a challenge. It takes three or more days to dry nine trays in an Excaliber dehydrator. When you have 20 pounds of fruit from one picking, it is impossible to get them all in the dryer at once. The berries remaining on the vines, last fall, did not get picked. The birds got some, the chickens a few more, and my dog Pickles was still eating them this spring. I think the dog prefers them to strawberries.

Though not backed by research, tea from the leaves may have antioxidant benefits as well as other benefits. The leaves have been used as an herbal drink for thousands of years in China. Anyone who is allergic to nightshade family plants might want to use blueberry leaf tea instead. Studies with apples indicate that much of the antioxidant value is in the peel. This is also true of the wolf berry. Juicing and not using the pulp might affect antioxidant value and some other nutrients. The proteins found in the seeds would also be gone. Many of the drinks which are marketed containing goji juice not only are without the pulp, the main ingredient is often apple juice with some pomegranate juice for red colon

Literature indicates that one should pick the berries when fully ripe to get maximum sweetness. This may also help in the drying process, but some nutrients decrease as the fruit ripens and others increase. Total amino acids, raw protein, total nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and betaine decrease. Never really sweet, wolfberries always have a slightly bitter taste, so why fool around with picking only the fully ripe fruit. When all are orange to red, just grab a whole line of berries on a stem and pick a handful at a time. Even by the handful it takes a long time, about two hours, to pick both sides of a 30-foot row. Most of last year's crop was washed and frozen in small bags. Some stems stay on the fruit, but these do not show up in a smoothie.

The nutrient value of wolfberries from China is well documented. What is not mentioned in publications is the joy obtained by growing something new and different, and having it succeed. Over the years, one author has had a goal of trying one new garden plant each year. The failure last year was rutabagas. Some roots weighed up to four pounds. Once they froze, the goats would not eat them, so there were 500 pounds of rutabagas for compost this spring.

For information on growing wolfberries, check out Perennial Vegetables, $35.00 from the Countryside Bookstore.

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Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Daugs, Donald R.; Rainey, Victoria
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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