A Winter Hardy Solanaceae
John Farina whose e-mail name is "plant-guy" sent me a brief note a few years ago about wolfberry (Lycium chinensis or L. barbarum) growing in his neighborhood in the Bronx. The planting had been managed as a chest high hedge at one time but in recent years had been cut to the ground each year. On occasion, the annual regrowth would produce berries. "Could I send you some seeds?", he wrote, "I think they could be developed into a serious nutriceutical crop by someone with time and space." While I don't really have much time or space these days, I didn't want to miss an opportunity to work with a crop that was absolutely new to me. John sent me some links to investigate.
I don't know why this plant escaped my notice (with all the publicity on the internet) since I'm always looking for interesting, useful plants to grow and learn about! Wolfberry is a woody perennial plant that is grown in Asia for the orange berries that are usually dried to a raison like stage and then rehydrated for the nutty flavor and interesting texture that it gives to many kinds of chinese rice and stir-fry dishes. It is also used as a tea and is considered to be an important chinese medicinal. The leaves of the wolfberry are also used in the preparation of a soup in some regions in Asia.
Here, in the US and elsewhere, the dried orange "raisins" are appearing in health food markets in small packages as a snacking food. The berries are creating quite a sensation as a "miracle" food. It's interesting that good quality dried "wolfberry" fruit commands a very high price in the market but hasn't attracted more interest in the agriculture community even though it does thrive in our climate! It certainly seems to warrant more investigation and perhaps selection for various properties (culinary uses, nutrition and cultural practices).
John started to investigate the Goji too. Having more access to the New York City markets especially in Chinatown, he noticed variations in the size and flavor of berries. In Chinatown markets where the dried Goji berry has been imported and sold as a culinary and medicinal since the beginning, there are many brands imported from China which may represent regional sources of fruit and perhaps greater genetic diversity. During the summer of 2008 John kindly sent me seeds and berries from his new "finds".
What a treasure! By midsummer John had collected an impressive assortment of berries from New York City plantings that he identified as well as health food store and Chinese markets. A modern day plant hunter, he discovered large tender stems of new growth marketed in a Asian produce market and sold in bunches which were considerably different in the appearance of the stems of plants grown for their fruit to dry. I decided to share the seeds and cuttings that he sent to me with the Botanical Center over at the Eastern Campus of Suffolk Community College where the staff could monitor their progress over the summer.
Rooting the tender, new summer growth is very easy. After a few days in water there will be masses of roots. From their tiny seed, they grow a lot like most other solanaceae (peppers, tomatoes, tomatillo). Germination is quick although the seedlings were slow growing in the greenhouse during the heat of the summer.
John Farina reported that one of his rooted cuttings had produced a flower by September but it was one that received only an hour or two of direct sun. The plants at the Botanical Center, from seed and cuttings showed no signs of blooming but had all become very twiggy by the first frost. The staff at the Center noted considerable differences between the various seeds and plans that John contributed to the project and will continue to monitor the plants hopefully through fruit harvest which should be next summer to identify characteristics that may lead to local commercial production of this interesting, economically important berry.
Three cheers for John Farina! As an update, there are a number of farmers across the US now working with John's diverse seed in order to select out a more perfect breeding line for cultivation in the US. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the Goji project. Here at Flanders Bay Farm, we have a diverse collection of plants from John's seed. The seed germinate readily given the same kind of care as tomato seed but then the seedlings make very slow growth. The first year for the seedlings seems to always be tenuous for some reason. We moved them twice before; toward the end of the second year, we found a spot in the front garden under the kiwi trellis where they have sent out long arching branches up to a meter in length. No flowers or fruit; but for the first time in two years the plants are finally thriving.
There was quite a bit of interest among our members and many requests for seed. In June, 2010; we ran out of seeds of the Goji Berries that John Farina collected on his travels. We managed to supply about 40 gardeners/farmers each with 100 or so mixed seeds from his diverse collection until they ran out. If you have access to dried berries, the seeds can be removed by soaking the berries in a deep bowl of warm water, mashing them and then separating the clean seed which settles to the bottom as you gently pour the pulpy water off. You will find that their germination is very good. The second part of our work with Goji begins as the initial plants raised from John's seed collection begin to fruit. We will be selecting specific plants with unique traits to evaluate and we hope that others growing these plants from seed will do the same. We assume that we will have several clones available with worthwhile characteristics in another year or two. At that point we should be able to provide rooted cuttings (goji stems root quite easily) if our plants continue to do well.
As an update, John read the above and sent another box of dried berries from many sources; some different than the ones he sent prior and as a result we are growing another batch of the finicky seedlings. Also, the plants from the initial seeds and cuttings that John sent are beginning to produce fruit here in Flanders, NY. There is really an amazing amount of diversity you can see in the plants so this project could yield some interesting genetics for farmers planning to grow this crop outside of China. It is indeed an interesting project and we will keep you informed.