Elaeagnus x ebbingei is a common evergreen shrub, recognisable by the beautiful silver underside of its leaves. It’s generally grown as an ornamental, but is incredibly valuable in the permaculture garden as it produces huge amounts of edible red berries in April and May, when few other fruit are available – these berries are widely used both in Chinese medicine and cooking. Thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, a liquid extract of the fruit is used for the treatment of arthritis.
It’s also a nitrogen-fixer, being one of the plants with the Rhizobia bacteria on its roots, and so has the added benefit of increasing your soil’s fertility when grown on a vegetable patch, while not really needing any attention or nourishment of its own.
If you locate an Elaeagnus hedge in your area, it’s worth keeping an eye on it towards late spring, as it really fruits very heavily. Pick the berries when they turn a deep red; any lighter than that and they’ll be fairly acidic. At the centre of the berry is a single seed covered with a fibrous coating – the seed is edible but you’ll probably want to spit out the tough coating.
06.05.11 See here for an update on recipes to try with your harvest.