Whoever heard of Goji Berry 20 years ago? Now, with the current interest in superfoods, phytonutrients and antioxidants, Goji Berry juice and dried fruits can be found in many urban grocery stores. The 70+ species of Lycium are found on most continents and one species, Lycium pallidum, is native to Colorado. But the best known and most grown Goji is Lycium barbarum, the Chinese Wolfberry, also known as Matrimony Vine, Desert Thorn and Boxthorn. What is not commonly known is that this exotic superfood can be easily grown in Colorado.
Lycium is in the Solanaceae family of plants like tomatoes and potatoes. In a recent plant trip to Utah, Kathleen Stewart, president of the Rocky Mt. Rock Garden Society, described a native Goji Berry: “The fruits of the Lycium were tasty-tiny tomatoes in the desert.” Lorraine Yeatts, who was on the same trip, told me that she has found native Goji Berries growing around Anasazi ruins where they had been cultivated at least 700 years ago. Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman lists five western native species used and in use by many tribes, mostly for food, but also for medicine.
This very adaptable plant is a spiny, viney shrub 4′-12′ tall with small pink to purple flowers. (our Lycium pallidum has greenish white flowers with purplish veins). It is very tough and drought resistant. Following the flowers are bright red fleshy berries that can produce July through October. Goji Berry is self-fertile, so it does not require a pollinator. It is a wild-looking plant that can be trained as a vine, grown to cover a steep bank or cascade over a wall, or it can be pruned as an arching shrub.
Local gardener, Frank Hodge, has seven year old plants that he grew from seed and are now seven feet tall. These started fruiting the second year and they only get water “when it rains”. Many years ago, the J.L.Hudson seed catalog got me interested to try Lycium chinense which I grew from seed and planted in a wild area. The second year it started suckering so fast and far that I got scared of that thorny pioneer and took it out. George Kelly, the first acting director of the Denver Botanic Gardens and author of many early books on Rocky Mt. Gardening, described Matrimony Vine (Goji) as very tough and drought resistant: “…and when everything else fails, the Matrimony Vine will grow…” He also wrote: “Like matrimony, once you get it, it is hard to get rid of.” More recently, I have been growing Lycium barbarum ‘Phoenix Tears’ which is much better behaved and has delicious and copious fruits. I am growing it in a low spot where it is rarely watered.
The Chinese have been cultivating and using Goji Berries for 2000 years. China currently produces eleven million pounds of dried Goji Berries a year, which are mostly consumed in China. Traditionally, Goji is used as a healthful tonic, believed to support immune function, good eyesight and long life. In modern terms, Goji “…contains the highest level of antioxidants of any food plant; high in protein and minerals, B vitamins and amino acids.” It also contains very high levels of beta carotene, which supports the claim that it is good for the eyes. The young leaves can be eaten in salads or made into a tea. The roots are used both by the Chinese and native Americans for medicine. And the berries can be made into tea, juice, syrup, dried or snacked from the vine.
Today you can watch videos on Goji Berry, buy the juice and dried fruits, purchase the plants from a few local nurseries and online. Even Proven Winners has their own selections and Amazon is jumping on the bandwagon. Colorado has its own native species, and it is easy to grow and is drought tolerant. The Chinese and Anasazi have centuries of history of its use. So we probably don’t want to jump to any conclusions just because it’s a fad, but maybe you might want to grow some Goji Berries.
Resources: Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory, Native American Ethnobotany, Shrubs for the Rocky Mountains by George Kelly, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Ancient Wisdom of Chinese Tonic Herbs