Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Elaeagnaceae Elaeagnus commutata Bernh. ex Rydb.

by Adam Benfer

The silverberry, also known as wolf-willow and silver buffaloberry in English or chalef changeant in French, had a limited use in the indigenous American diet. Yet, it remained important source of food, medicine, and craft material to a number of Native American tribes. It has several close relatives that can be found locally in ornamental landscaping, which are the Russian olive or oleaster (E. angustifolia) and the cherry elaeagnus (E. multiflora)(Schofield 1989: 233).


The silverberry shrub has rusty twigs and alternate, elliptical silvery-green leaves similar to those of its cousin, the buffaloberry. Silverberry flower petals are silver on the outside and yellow on the inside. The silverberry (a drupe), which is ripe in late summer and autumn, has a silvery-green color, is about ½ inch in diameter and has a large hard seed (Fernald and Kinsey 1958: 276; Marles et al. 2000: 168).

Geographic Distribution

These shrubs are commonly found in dry meadows, valleys, and shorelines, as well as on dry, rocky limestone slopes across western Canada and the northwestern part of the United States (Fernald and Kinsey 1958: 276; Marles et al. 2000: 168).

Food Use

Silverberries have had a number of edible uses by Native Americans, even though the fruit is mealy and dry (Marles et al. 2000: 168). Some Alaska natives fried the fruit in moose fat. The Tanana also cooked the berries in grease. The Blackfoot used peeled silverberries to make candy and cooked it into soups, as well as eating it raw. The Cree not only ate the raw berries, but made them into wine. Some tribes, like the Okanagan-Colville and some Montana natives, are only known to have eaten the berries raw, while other, like the Okanagon and the Paiute used the seeds for food (Moerman 1998: 207).

Other Uses

The silverberry has lots of other uses. A strong salve made of silverberry bark and grease was used to treat Blackfoot children with frostbite. Members of a Thompson tribe took a decoction of silverberry roots and sumac roots to treat syphilis, but this medicine is considered poisonous and may cause the patient to become sterile (Moerman 1998: 207). The bark of the silverberry shrub can be to make strong rope, clothing, baskets, headbands, and mats. The Blackfoot made the berries into soap. The Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cree, Tanana, and Thompson also made the berries and seeds into beads (Moerman 1998: 208). Schofield (1989: 234) recommends using silverberry flowers to make perfumes and massage oils.


Fernald, Merritt Lyndon, and Alfred C. Kinsey 1958 Edible wild plants of Eastern North America. Rev. ed. New York,: Harper. 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. Schofield, Janice 1989 Discovering wild plants : Alaska, western Canada, the Northwest. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books.