Species distinguishing characteristics:
- Deciduous shrub with opposite branches and opposite leaves
- Underside of leaves covered in silver hairs and rust-colored dots
- Inconspicuous yellowish flowers below joints of unopened leaves
- Male and female flowers on separate plants
- Translucent, red or orange, oval fruits with one stony seed
- Shrubs or trees, often armed with thorns
- Foliage often covered with scaly or flaking hairs
- Silver-gray leaves
- Flowers with no petals and 2 or 4 sepals fused into a disk- or funnel-shape
- 4 or 8 stamens (pollen organs)
- Berry-like fruits with one stony seed surrounded by fleshy swollen sepals
- Well-known members of the family include the Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) and other ornamental varieties of Eleagnus spp.
Deciduous perennial shrub with erect to spreading stems, 1-3 m tall, lacking spines.
Leaves and stems:
Opposite branches with opposite, short-stalked leaves, 1-6 cm long and 1-3 cm wide. Leaves are oval to narrowly egg-shaped with entire margins. The upper surface of leaves is dark green. The underside has a fuzzy coating of whitish-silver hairs (that are star-shaped under magnification) and flaky rust-colored scales that can be rubbed off.
Scaly brownish felt thickly covers young twigs. Older branches are brownish.
One to several inconspicuous flowers in clusters below leaf joints appear before leaves open. Yellowish-green female and brownish-yellow male flowers are borne on separate plants. Flowers are 4 mm wide and have 4 lobes, each 1-2 mm long, composed of fused sepals. Male flowers are disk-shaped and have 8 stamens, in an 8-lobed disk, in the throat of the sepal tube. Female flowers are more funnel-shaped, have slightly shorter sepal lobes, and have a single pistil enclosed within the sepal tube.
Translucent, bright red to yellowish-orange, oval fruits, 4-8 mm long, with a single stony seed. Fruits appear berry-like, but the juicy flesh surrounding the seed (an achene) forms when the sepals swell. Fruits are tipped with 4 flat spreading lobes (remnants of sepals). Fruits are soapy to touch when crushed and a bitter taste quickly overpowers an initial sweet taste. Berries often remain on bushes into mid-winter.
Dry, rocky, or moist soils of open forests, thickets, streambanks, dry floodplains, meadows, and sites with recent disturbance such as burned forests and grasslands. Found at low to subalpine elevations.
The foliage provides a moderate quality browse for mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), bison (Bison bison), elk (Cervus canadensis), bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), and snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) especially when the plants are dormant in winter and fall. The berries are a highly favored food of grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), black bears (Ursus americanus), and ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus).
Rich in vitamin C and iron, the bitter berries taste somewhat sweeter after several freezes or when dried. The bitter taste of the berries is due to the prevalence of saponins, foam-producing compounds, which can irritate the stomach causing diarrhea and cramps if eaten in large quantities. Berries were traditionally harvested by using a stick to beat the Canada buffaloberry bush over a piece of canvas or a hide. Dried berries were mixed with dried buffalo meat to make pemmican or added to stews and puddings. Fresh berries are cooked to make syrup, sauce, or jelly. Canada buffaloberries may be whisked into a foamy froth and then combined with copious amounts of sugar to make Indian ice cream, which is a highly sought-after treat that is still popular today. Traditionally, the berries were whisked with the inner bark of cedar (Thuja spp.) or Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum), or with thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) leaves. Prior to the availability of sugar, it was sweetened with common camas (Camassia quamash) bulbs or western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) cambium. The decidedly bitter taste is acquired; the berries were highly valued for this use and traded for with many tribes in areas that lacked Canada buffaloberries.
The berries were also used medicinally to treat flu, indigestion, and constipation. The juice was considered an effective treatment for acne, boils, and gallstones. The berries were also crushed and boiled for use as liquid soap and shampoo. A decoction of the bark was used to relieve eye soreness.
Like many shrubs that colonize disturbed sites, Canada buffaloberry has nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules that allow them to grow in marginal soils. They may also concentrate mercury from soil.