Perhaps like you, I watched the recent PBS biography of Wallace Stegner, noted author historian, and environmentalist. Stegner wrote several noteworthy books, but his formative years growing up in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan are detailed in his book Wolf Willow. I was quiet surprised to learn that what he and others called wolf willow is the plant I have generally heard called silverberry.
Silverberry is not a willow. The scientific name of this shrub is Elaeagnus commutata, and along with its close relatives Russian olive and buffaloberry, belongs to the Oleaster family (.Elaeagnaceae). Most every North Dakotan has seen the plant, although I suspect few have given it much attention. It can be found across the state on a variety of soils, but perhaps is most abundant on thin, gravely, and sandy soils. You may see it on brushy hillsides as well as near the margins of wetlands, and it seems to be particularly widespread and abundant on the Missouri Coteau.
Silverberry is a slender shrub that grows to between 4 and 8 feet tall. But because it is rhizomatous, underground horizontal stems, it is often observed in open patches or thickets. There are not very many species of shrubs in our region with silver leaves, and silverberry is one of them. Plus as the common name implies, it produces rounded to oval silver colored fruits a little smaller than a marble.
It is this time of year, from late May through about mid-June, when silverberry produces its numerous small yellow flowers that it is perhaps the most conspicuous. And it is conspicuous because of its smell. All those yellow flowers produce an extremely strong fragrance. The smell is difficult to describe, but it is very sweet, resembling a mixture of strongly scented sweetclover and roses. It is very noticeable and distinct. Once you have recognized the smell you won’t forget it. The smell will permeate the air near a stand of silverberry that is even noticeable while one is driving through the area.
So as you travel over the next couple weeks, be on the lookout for this interesting plant. And once you find it, breathe deep to get a load of that sweet, rich, silverberry fragrance.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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