Sacred Buffalo Berry (Shepardia canadensis)
This plant is new to me since moving into the valley, its bright red berries beckoning me to explore, gain knowledge of the history and the wild uses of this local fauna. Buffalo or soap berry, as it is often called, came by its common names as it was used by the first Europeans and First Nations as an accompaniment to buffalo meat preparations and by its high saponin content which gives the berry a slippery, foam similar to soap. The most traditional use for the berries was whipped with sugar to create an ‘Indian ice cream’ served at feasts and celebrations. It was of prime importance to honour girls as they moved into womanhood in sacred ceremonies. The berry, leaves and bark has also been used as a dye, I am curious to try a brown hair dye that can be made by boiling the twigs and bark, allowing to cool and applying to the hair. The bark was also twisted and dried to make laces and thongs by the first nations. Buffalo berry has many ecological benefits, being native to North America, it has a high tolerance for salty soils, is drought resistant, winter hardy and a nitrogen fixer to replenish soils as well as habitat and shelter for many small birds and animals. Grizzly, black bear, grouse, elk, deer and hares all graze on the leaves, shoots, and berries as an important food source.
My main interest in the plant was the jewel-like bitter berries which are very astringent, high in iron and vitamin c and have a reputation as a digestive aid. I was walking Grey Rock Road last summer and had the fortune to speak with some First Nations who were harvesting the berries for “Xuxum juice” which a tablespoon is added to a jug of water, mixed gently with sugar to taste, for a refreshing, healing beverage. They showed me some of the ways to harvest the berries with ease and to remove only the freshest berries by gently striking the plant with a stick or shaking a branch, with a catcher bag or tarp underneath each plant.
I was inspired to use the berry in a wild harvested soap that is mildly astringent, high in vitamin C, antioxidants and due to the high saponins, extra rich and sudsy. I will be listening and watching for inspiration and insight this year as I wait for the berries to brighten and ripen to see what magical plant medicine ways they choose to reveal for new Wildcraft creations.