Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Elaeagnaceae Shepherdia, Spp.

By Adam Benfer

There are only three species of buffaloberry in the world, all of which are native to North America: Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea (Pursh) Nutt.), Russet Buffaloberry (S. canadensis (L.) Nutt.), and Roundleaf Buffaloberry (S. rotundifolia Perry). The berries and other parts of the plant were used as food, medicine, and dye (Moerman 1998: 528-530). Other names for Buffaloberry include: soapberry, bullberry, rabbitberry, chaparral berry, silverleaf, soopolallie, and graise de boeuf (Angier [2008] 1974: 30; Kindscher 1987: 210; Scully 1970: 18).


The buffaloberry shrub normally grows between 2 to 7 feet tall and has brown branches, the smaller of which are covered with silvery scales. It has smooth edged, green, 2½ inches long oval-shaped leaves growing opposite from each other, which are covered with silvery or brownish scales on their undersides and many times exhibit hairiness In the spring the shrub produces clusters of small yellow flowers at the same time the leaves begin to grow. The small, round buffaloberry fruit is translucent and either a colored a bright yellow or scarlet. A unique property of this fruit is that it contains a substance that foams in water (Angier [2008] 1974: 30).

Geographic Distribution

Buffaloberries grow in almost every part of the United States and Canada (Angier [2008] 1974: 30). The are commonly found growing in open woods, prairie valleys, dry eroded hillsides and along river and stream edges (Kindscher 1987: 210; Marles et al. 2000: 169).

Food Use

Of the three varieties of buffaloberries the Russet buffaloberry had the most indigenous uses, the silver buffaloberry was used less frequently, and the roundleaf buffaloberry appears to have had only a few medicinal uses according to Moerman’s (1998: 528-530) thorough investigation. The most popular food use of the russet buffaloberry was in the production of “Indian ice cream.” Many Native American tribes in the north made this frothy dessert by beating hot water, buffaloberries, and sugar together by hand in a basket or other grease-free container. Buffaloberries were also used to make sweetened beverages (like soopolallie), preserves, porridge, sauces and relishes, pudding, candy, and dried cakes saved for winter food. The berries were also commonly eaten raw, but only after the first frost has naturally sweetened them, and even then in moderation (Moerman 1998: 528-529). Eating too many buffaloberries in any form causes diarrhea (Marles et al. 2000: 169) and may be fatal. The substance that causes the buffaloberry to become frothy when beaten is called saponin, which is utilized commercially as a foam producer and is thought to cause the fruits bitter flavor (Angier [2008] 1974: 30). Trappers, pioneers, and others have used this berry since European colonization to produce tasty beverages, excellent jelly, and even catsup (Scully 1970: 19).

Other Uses

The buffaloberry has also been used to make dye and medicines for various ailments.

Parts of the plant as well as the berries have been used to treat constipation, tuberculosis, sours, swelling, cuts, arthritis, venereal diseases, (Marles et al. 2000: 169), stomach troubles, fevers, broken bones, mosquito bites, sore eyes, acne, boils, stomach cancer, gallstones, toothaches, headaches, and a gynecological aid among other indigenous uses. It can also be used to make shampoo (Moerman 1998: 528-530).


Angier, Bradford
[2008] 1974 Field guide to edible wild plants (revised & updated). 2 ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. Kindscher, Kelly
1987 Edible wild plants of the prairie : an ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. Marles, Robin James, Canada. Natural Resources Canada., and Canadian Forest Service. 2000 Aboriginal plant use in Canada's northwest boreal forest. Vancouver: UBC Press. Moerman, Daniel E.
1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press. Scully, Virginia
1970 A treasury of American Indian herbs; their lore and their use for food, drugs, and medicine. New York,: Crown Publishers.