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In Zhangjiakou, Hebei, China, 200km northwest of Beijing, the desert has been encroaching for dozens of years.

Up to 20% of China’s territory is being threatened by desertification, particularly in the areas around windswept Inner Mongolia.

However, since the year 2000, teams of foresters with the Chinese government have been working to beat back the desert, buying up land from local farmers and planting it with desert-hardy plants, including shelterbelt superhero seabuckthorn.

In addition to its many health, beauty, and anti-aging virtues, the seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides L.) plant is significant to the agricultural and land conservation fields due to its role as a windbreak and as animal fodder.

Seabuckthorn’s nutritional properties have been known throughout Asia for centuries, as Kang Cheng Fu, Zhangjiakou Forestry Bureau vice-chief, is well aware.

A short drive away in Zhangbei county, Kang plucked some orange-red seeds from a leafless spiky shrub that dotted the wind-swept flat land that receives very little rain.

“These are as valuable as gold, they are used in medicine,” he said, adding that the hardy seabuckthorn shrub was chosen because it can survive even in drought conditions.

As a major player in the fight against soil erosion, desertification and nutrient depletion, the seabuckthorn plant has a number of useful weapons. First, it is a very hardy plant that can survive desert conditions and extreme temperature variations, as well as being viable in up to 1% saline soil. It is also a nitrogen fixer, grabbing vital nitrogen from the atmosphere instead of nutrient-poor soil. Seabuckthorn’s dense but extensive root system reaches deep into the ground to extract moisture and nutrients while holding the soil in place against the ravages of wind and precipitation.

Soil erosion and its brethren, desertification and nutrient depletion, are global problems – and the hardy, self-sufficient seabuckthorn plant is an obvious and elegant solution.

Seabuckthorn is also both a habitat and food source for wildlife, and a superior livestock feed. A fact that seems lost on the authors of this article and study, which decries the loss of grassland due to climate change, because of its impact on grazing.

“Encroachment of shrubs into grasslands is an important problem facing rangeland managers and ranchers,” the authors said. “This process replaces grasses, the preferred forage of domestic livestock, with species that are unsuitable for domestic livestock foraging.”

While a shrub like sagebrush – a plant mentioned as benefiting from the decline of grasses – is not comparable to grasses as a source of livestock fodder, seabuckthorn (whose typical range overlaps that of many plains shrubs and bushes like sagebrush) is nutritionally superior to grasses, and confers myriad benefits (enumerated above) to the regions where it grows.

Seabuckthorn is unique, in that it is equally good for the land where it is grown and the animals which enhabit that land.

Further reading:

Synthesis report of the FAO electronic conference “Drought-resistant soils: Optimization of soil moisture for sustainable plant production” – FAO.org

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