Ontario’s locally grown citrus

Berries ready for harvestTeeswater ON – You could be in a citrus grove as you stroll amongst swaying branches chock full of brightly coloured orange fruit – but you know you can’t be since you’re in Ontario, a province not known for its citrus-growing climate.

What you’re seeing is sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides L), a unique and hard-to-find superfruit billed as “Ontario’s 100 mile citrus crop”.

The thorny plant is a great source of antioxidants, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals like potassium and iron. Rich in Omega 3, 6, 9 and 7, it’s also good for the skin and arteries.

Eight of the small berries, for example, can equal approximately one daily dose of Vitamin C, and in the 1980s, sea buckthorn oil was used to treat burn victims from the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

It’s rare in Ontario, but Marlene Wynnyk and partner Rodger Shankland are known as Ontario’s sea buckthorn pioneers, establishing the province’s first plantings at their Golden Orchard in southern Bruce County nine years ago.Sign at the entrance to the orchard

It’s a labour of love that has won them a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation and established them as the go-to source for sea buckthorn in Ontario as the fledgling industry works to get off the ground.

“This started off as a sea buckthorn project, but now it is an odyssey,” says Marlene. “Everybody wants to be known for something, and I’m the sea buckthorn lady. Our ultimate goal is to promote agri-tourism in our area.”

Sea buckthorn grows well in marginal land, is drought resistant, and can survive in temperatures from -40C to +40 C. Trees are both male and female with only the females producing fruit; the males are needed for pollination.

Ten acres of Marlene and Rodger’s 80 acre farm is dedicated to their orchard, where they grow two varieties ideal for Ontario’s climate in different stages of development: Huron Sunset and Citrus Gold.

Sea buckthorn is classified as a shrub, and in order to have them grow as a single stalk, many of the branches are cut off at harvest and then the berries are removed.

At Golden Orchard, the leaves are dried and used to make tea, and the leftover branches are shredded in a wood chipper and re-applied to the orchard as mulch.

It was an interest in women’s health that sparked Marlene’s passion for sea buckthorn, and led to the creation of her company, The Healing Arc.

“I love the outdoors and I’ve always believed that a healthy body equals a healthy mind,” says Marlene, who has a Master’s degree in Social Work from Wilfrid Laurier University and used to be active in sales and public relations. “I was going to retire at 60, then at 65. Now I’ve decided that when I turn 70 I will take a year off.”

Most of the berries, which are harvested in late August to early September, are sold to foodies – gourmet food lovers – from Toronto, Marlene says, who come to the orchard to pick their own.

Marlene - left - and sister Sandra in the orchard

Marlene – left – and sister Sandra in the orchard

Her sister Sandra turns some of the berries into sought-after jams, jellies and salsas that are sold at the orchard, while still others are used for making juice or as ingredients in skin creams, oils, soap and lip balm.

Helping other farmers start growing sea buckthorn is another of Marlene and Rodger’s passions, selling trees and providing advice and support to interested farmers.

So far they’ve assisted about 20, most of who are looking for an additional value-added crop to add to their existing farm operations.

“We’ve had all the nutritional and analysis done and scientific facts gathered about sea buckthorn and we give that to growers who buy our trees. And in the fall, we spend a day a week going to visit growers who are interested – we don’t charge for that,” she explains.

The demand and the profitability is there for sea buckthorn, she believes, and the industry will grow as those new orchards come into production.

Marlene is planning to write and release an e-book about growing sea buckthorn in Ontario, and is hoping to continue with the lecturing and speaking she’s been doing at conferences and local horticultural societies.

A new partnership with Richters Herbs is also in the works; the southern Ontario nursery will be selling Golden Orchard’s sea buckthorn plants starting next spring.

More information about sea buckthorn, Golden Orchard and the Healing Arc can be found at www.thehealingarc.com.

This article is one in a series produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario. The stories highlight innovative initiatives in the areas of animal welfare and environmental stewardship in Ontario agriculture.