TOAST Magazine

The Magic of Sea Buckthorn

LAND & GARDEN

Elena Heatherwick and Lindsay Sekulowicz travelled to meet Willow Walker, who has harvested wild sea buckthorn on the east coast of Scotland for 10 years.

The sea buckthorn season is underway. It began on the first day of October and will continue until the last day of February. The light will decrease as the weeks continue and the temperatures start to fall quickly. As most of nature is moving into the dark half of the year, Willow readies for the harvest ahead.

The coastline here is in constant change. The wind can drum up rolling ridges of sand and storms that can tip the sea. A few years ago a storm raged for days, leaving behind a warm salty plastic taste in the air and glistening black and brown mountains of seaweed on the beach as if the seabed had been turned upside down. Afterwards, people wandered in colourless skies collecting starfish that littered the sand and there were reports that a pod of whales had beached themselves further down the coast. You are always aware of this precarious interplay between coast, sea and air as you look out into the white light of the North Sea.

But today is a quiet day, not part of Willow’s usual harvest. It is one of those bright winter days with a cobalt sky and we are lying on our backs in the dunes, counting tiny striped seashells and listening to the sea crash around us. The sun heats our faces, soaks through our clothes and turns the dancing lyme grass into a silver forest around us. Walls of sea buckthorn rise up behind us, growing out of the sand and holding it together.

With a name that means ‘shining horse’, Hippophae rhamnoides, the common sea buckthorn growing here is found throughout temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, although it is most often associated with the high altitude landscapes of the Himalayas in India and China, and the tundra of Mongolia and Russia. It can tolerate extreme cold in the air and salt in the soil, which is why the plant was introduced, in the 1960s, to stabilise the dunes and stop the erosion that threatened the natural tides of this coastline.

Willow has the quiet reserve of somebody who is accustomed to carefully watching the world around her. Describing the start of her own journey here, she recounts how one day she was collecting shells close to the water’s edge – the same shells now gathering in small piles in front of us – and saw a plant that she recognised from her favourite Hamlyn Guide on edible and medicinal species. 

One of the only references she had found to sea buckthorn, the book detailed its long history of medicinal use within many cultures and the varied properties in its juice, seeds, leaves and pollen – many of which are rarely are found in the plant world. She was delighted to find it growing here and, though that first bush was not bearing berries at the time, it held a particular energy that she was compelled by. Combining her previous knowledge of horticulture and seed collection with an instinctive decision, she waited patiently for the first harvest, and then began to work.

Stewardship is the belief that humans are responsible for taking care of the world around them, and this is an ethic that Willow evokes at the heart of her work. Like many foragers, it is vital that the exact location of her sea buckthorn source is not revealed. This is less to do with keeping the treasure for herself than it is about protecting the plant and understanding that other coastal inhabitants need to share it too. 

The dates she works are not only dictated by the berries, but also by the nesting season of the birds. Earlier today as we climbed down to the dunes we disturbed a flock of field fares that flew out across the dunes from their shrubby winter feasting grounds. This is an essential feeding and nesting station for migratory birds as the landscape combines mudflats, salt and freshwater marshes, dunes and woodland as well as this extensive network of sea buckthorn.

Willow has a license to harvest here. The amount she can collect is dictated by the local authorities (who perhaps view her work favourably given buckthorn is considered potentially invasive and its growth needs to be controlled), but it is also limited by her physical capability and by her understanding of the amount she can gather without upsetting the natural balance. 

Both these elements are about to become abundantly clear as Willow dresses to begin harvesting. Warm layers are followed by waterproof covers, strong boots, her ‘buckthorn cap’ and layers of gloves. The final heavy turquoise pair, shredded in some places, must be strong enough to withstand the long thorns of these wild plants. With a large bucket tucked under her arm, she burrows deep into a thicket and we hear a robin call out a warning that we are on his land now.

Avoiding the hemlock and the nightshades which grow nearby, she begins to harvest. Her fingers are splayed out and she combines combing through the branches and their outward growing thorns with a practiced squeezing manoeuvre akin to ‘milking’ the tree. Our sandy boots are treading on the lowest branches and an intense sour citrus smell emerges around us. It’s a heady combination and the physicality of the work becomes clear; the branches snapping back at her as the luminous juice runs into the bucket.

A certain number of buckets must be gathered during each session to make the number required for the hand pressed juices she produces. We are only there for this first stage of work, the rest of her week is occupied with further processing of the berries. Everything is carried out between her and a tiny team, and it is an enormous feat to oversee and care for every single stage of the process.

Willow takes evident pleasure in her surroundings. The skin of the berries is fragile and incredibly soft and the clusters at the very top of some stalks have become bleached by the sun, appearing pearl-like against the blue-brown hues of the branches. Willow comments on the berries, calling them beauties and describes how even between individual plants she can perceive differences in the taste and smell of the fruit. 

There is a long-eared owl coolly surveying the land in the top branches of a clump just beyond us and I think of Pegasus, the mythical winged horse, who was said to have descended from the heavens to enjoy these berries.

There’s an inch of buckthorn juice left in the bottom of the huge bucket at the end of the afternoon, and Willow hands it to me to drink. “Use your teeth as a sieve” she says. Everyone laughing, I drink the juice alongside a mouthful of foliage. It’s completely joyful – delicious and sharply tropical tasting.

Later in the day, warm and full after bowls of cullen skink and towering plates of chips that have burned the roof of our mouths, we jump into Willow’s car to drive back to the station with a sea-air sleepiness descending upon us. Feathers are collected in the glove compartment, shells are on the dashboard and up and down the coast the geese fly in their beautiful formations towards the bay to roost.

Words by Lindsay Sekulowicz. Images by Elena Heatherwick. 

Willow wears the Icelandic Fair Isle Yoke Sweater.

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