Dwarf Sea Buckthorn

Ah, trough gardens in summer! Here's one of those that I've planted exclusively with plants that demand lean, dry soil. Think sand with a side of gravel. Prickly pear cactus is a natural, as were the creeping yellow-leaved sedum and (look closely) the dwarf broom at the left. 


Hippophae rhamnoides Sprite overall 081417 640


But what about the silver-leaved shrub at the center? It's the unique dwarf cultivar of sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides 'Sprite'. The species is a rangy monster that, in the East at least, does best in sand at the seashore. Sprite is a tuffet that may never top two feet.


I'm a good ten miles from salt water but, by filling up a high and huge concrete trough with sand, vermiculite, and gravel, I supplied exposure, drainage, and low fertility pretty similar to those of the seashore. Like the species, Sprite fixes its own nitrogen, so nutrient-rich soil isn't necessary. Thank goodness: The high level of organic material such a soil would possess also makes it moisture-retentive and, potentially, poorly draining. Both conditions seem to debilitate buckthorn, which becomes scrawnier and more tentative when you're nice to it, not thicker and more vigorous.


Buckthorn isn't happy in sustained heat, either. (Deep cold is no problem: It's hardy to Zone 3. That's Nome, Alaska.) Although the upper limit of hardiness—tolerance of summer heat as well as mild winters, in other words—is usually given as Zone 7, I bet this is only true when the shrub is planted in its preferred coastal-dune habitats. Those are far cooler in the summer than inland. Sprite may well thrive in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but in downtown Raleigh? I doubt it.


After two years, Sprite is clearly happy even though its overall size seems to have changed little. Vigorous, showy, and tiny: Sprite is an apt name, indeed. In the close-up, below, you can see that, although this shrub may put on size very slowly, it isn't because growth is congested. The leaves in the new tips in front of my fingertips are spaced far enough apart that growth is still quite see-through; if overall dwarfness were achieved by shorter distances between leaves, then the growth would be dense.


Hippophae rhamnoides Sprite fingers 081417 640 


Sprite, then, seems to be achieving its dwarf habit because its rate of growth is slow, not because that growth is dense. I'll be following this curious shrub for years, and will be able to detail the long-term interplay of density, overall size, and age.


All the while, Sprite will provide a winning combination of small-scale (or—who knows?—merely smaller scale) silvery bushiness, longevity, and hardiness that is hard to achieve in Zone 6: Rosemary isn't reliably hardy colder than Zone 7, while lavenders and santolina are neither long-lived nor woody enough to form anything other than low mounds or mini-hedges.


And while there are a number of willows that are silver-leaved or dwarf—or both—Sprite tops them all for compact silvery endurance: Salix lanata doesn't tolerate the summer heat of an eastern North American Zone 6, Salix purpurea 'Nana' grows six feet tall, Salix repens var. argentea can sprawl two yards or more, and Salix arctica doesn't persist. All the way at the huge end of the range for silver-leaved willows, Salix alba 'Sericea' is a full-sized tree if unpruned, and, even when coppiced, a large shrub by September.


Salix eleagnos is the silver willow that looks the most like Sprite, but even with unstinting coppicing, it can become five feet tall in a season. Plus, it seems less tolerant than you'd think any willow would be of moisture-retentive soil: I have tried twice to establish it in my garden's deep, heavy soil. Perhaps I'll have success when I plant it in that same soil but in a raised bed.


Lastly, there also isn't a dwarf version of Elaeagnus x 'Quicksilver', either. For durable silvery elegance about two feet tall and wide, then, Sprite seems unique. 




Here's how to grow dwarf sea buckthorn:



Latin Name

Hippophae rhamnoides 'Sprite'  

Common Name

Dwarf sea buckthorn, dwarf seaberry.


Elaeagnaceae, the wild olive family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous shrub.


Zones 3 to 7.


Compact, multi-stemmed, and self-branching.


Rate of Growth

Medium to slow.

Size in ten years

Reports vary. This one gives the ultimate height as 2’ high and wide, but this one says 4 - 6’ high and 4 - 5’ wide. With a shrub this hardy, smaller ultimate sizes in Connecticut wouldn’t be the result of stress at the lower end of hardiness: The entire state is substantially milder than Zone 3. After two years, my Sprite is barely a foot high and wide; my sense is that, for whatever reason, the two-foot range is more accurate in eastern North America.


Delicate. Especially when still producing new foliage in early summer, Sprite can have the same habit and coloring—and nearly as feathery a texture—as gray santolina. Later in summer, new foliage has stopped emerging, and the upper surfaces of the mature leaves have a similar gray-silver coloring as those of rosemary or lavender.

Grown for

its foliage, not its fruit: Each leaf is about three quarters of an inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. New leaves are silvery-white on all surfaces, for a striking contrast with mature leaves, whose silver-green hue of the upper surface is much quieter; the lower surface remains bright silvery white.


Sprite is a male, so doesn't (alas) bear the orange fruit, which can be extremely showy when contrasted with the silvery foliage of female plants, as well as after the foliage has been shed for the Winter. See "Variants," below, for a link to some female cultivars available in North America.


its hardiness: As is typical of the straight species, Sprite is hardy at least as cold as Zone 4; some sources say Zone 3. The upper limit of heat tolerance is variable: some sources say Zone 7, but others Zone 8. It's likely that, in eastern North America, Hippophae rhamnoides will thrive best in cold climates, e.g., Zones 3-4 to 6. This species' preferred conditions naturally foster maximal hardiness. See "Culture," below.


its diminutive size and persistence: To my knowledge, there is no other woody plant of Sprite's scale that combines silvery foliage with hardiness and longevity.


its equanimity about seaside conditions: Hippophae rhamnoides is so tolerant of sand and salt that the species can be planted directly at the seashore as a dune stabilizer. Sprite is too compact for such usage, but should thrive in a more compact and detailed seaside garden.

Flowering season

Spring, but neither male nor female flowers of Hippophae rhamnoides are showy. And remember, Sprite is a male, so it doesn't bear colorful fruit, either. This shrub is a foliage plant.

Color combinations

The silvery-green foliage goes with everything.

Partner plants

Close-by companions need to revel in, or at least attractively tolerate, Sprite's cultural preferences, while also not growing tall enough to cast Sprite into shade. Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) sounds ideal—plus its evergreen boxwood-like foliage is a great contrast.


Groundcovering sempervivems and low forms of sedum are another option; they to enjoy sandy soil, dryness, and full sun. The sempervivums are all great visually, because their thick rosettes of foliage (often in dramatic contrasting colors to the silvery-green of Sprite) are foolproof contrasts. You'll need to be more selective with the sedums, avoiding the many narrow-leaved ones, such as S. lineare in my photographs, whose texture would be repetitive. Instead, choose Sedum 'Rose Carpet' or among the forms of S. ewersii, kamtschaticum, spurium, and ternatum.


True cacti are an even more striking option; there are many forms of prickly pear (Opuntia is the genus) perfectly hardy to Zones 5, 4, and even 3. Their thick and comparatively enormous pads would be an ultimate juxtaposition with the slender delicate-looking foliage of Sprite. Choose forms that are low and spreading, especially if you're gardening in Zone 7, where mounding and even upright forms are also possible.


Provided their long sword leaves and, sometimes, comparatively enormous size don't encroach onto Sprite, almost any form of yucca would be super. Yucca rostrata and Y. glauca are hardy narrow-leaved forms less well known than Y. filamentosa. If you're gardening in a cool-summer Zone 7, also consider Y. gloriosa.


I hesitate to suggest dwarf bayberry despite that its cultural requirements are identical to those of Sprite: All forms of Myrica pensylvanica are vigorously stoloniferous, including the (comparatively) compact cultivar Silver Sprite. You would need to commit to severing its runners before they overtook the Hippophae.

Where to use it in your garden

Sprite’s requirements for full sun and dry, sandy soil place sharp restrictions on its use. 


It’s sometimes ideal if the chosen location is bordered by paving or ledge—or is even a planting pocket within ledge—so that the shrub’s abutting context is truly incapable of casting shade. That said, Hippophae is not heat-tolerant, and paving and ledge can be notorious for radiating back heat absorbed from the sun. Planting Hippophae entirely within paving, then, is probably safe only in this shrub’s colder zones of hardiness: 5, 4, and 3. In Zones 6 and 7, surround Sprite with living groundcover, not paving or stone. Ensure long-term full sun by restricting to the east or north sides of Hippophae any nearby taller plants that could cast it into shade


If these facilitative conditions—lean soil, full sun, shelter from oppressive heat—can be maintained, then you can site Sprite with aesthetics in mind, too. Gardeners contending with unamended, deep sand of a waterfront property (whether that water is sweet or salty) can rejoice that Hippophae will be quite at home. Locations abutting open sand would be maximally sunny but, depending on the stability of the terrain in the face of prevailing winds, might just put the Hippophae at risk of being buried outright. Could Hippophae be planted along the top of a retaining wall whose retained “soil” is largely sand? That seems ideal. 


Because Sprite can form a dwarf hedge, it could be a component of a knot garden—provided the other companions also preferred dry, sandy soil.


Sprite’s small size, exceptional hardiness, and drought tolerance make it a natural for planting in large containers that are left in situ winter and summer. (Indeed, this is just how I’ve used it.) Any trough garden specifically for succulents and conifers that are drought-tolerant as well as ultra-hardy would welcome Sprite.


See “Partner plants,” above, for plants that are both culturally appropriate and aesthetically engaging.


Full sun. Hippophae is reported as preferring dry, sandy, infertile soil; this is certainly my experience. The species fixes nitrogen, so richer soil isn't necessary for nutrition, and may well impair growth by retaining unwanted moisture and, thereby, fostering rot.

How to handle it: The Basics

Hippophae rhamnoides is so hardy—Zone 3, remember—that cold it experiences in Zones 4 through 7 is comparatively mild, indeed. It’s likely, then, that Sprite can be planted not just in spring or fall, but (provided the shrub is sited in the preferred dry, sandy soil) whenever during the winter that the soil is workable. Water sufficiently for establishment; because the shrub is at home in dry, lean soils, this may well mean just an initial drink.


When using Sprite as a free-range shrub, neither formative or maintenance pruning is likely to be needed thereafter.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

In addition to use as a diminutive solo specimen, Sprite lends itself to mass plantings. 


As a dwarf hedge—and assuming the two-foot height and width given in "Size," above—plant this slow-grower as close together as is practical. If you can access and afford enough plants, dig a trench for them and space so that each root-ball abuts the next. If not, aim for spacing not much farther apart than one foot on center. If your goal is a hedge that is more compact than the foot-or-two height and width yielded by free-range growth, do maintenance pruning in early spring.


As a groundcover, plant at one foot on center. Take care not to allow weeds to infiltrate the colony, especially when coverage is still spotty. They can cast shade that will slow or thin out growth of the Hippophae, thinning its coverage and thereby encouraging still more weeds.

Quirks and special cases

The name "Hippophae" at first suggested to me some minor Greek goddess, but is actually derived from hippos (horse) and phaos (light). The intended meaning is that the shrub's berries—which are high in nutrients, vitamin C among them—are reputed to improve vision in horses. (It helps to know that Hippophae rhamnoides is widely native to Europe, where horses have been grazing for millenia.) In Russia in particular, sea buckthorn is a cultivated fruit crop; an extract of the berries is thought to have antioxidant, analgesic, and antibacterial properties for humans as well.


The species name—rhamnoides—refers to true buckthorns, which are in the unrelated genus Rhamnus. Like Hippophae rhamnoides, some of them are also native to Europe. Visual resemblance is obvious, in that the foliage of buckthorns is wide and green, and the berries are usually black. Berries of R. alaternus, though, are red first (then maturing to black); this broadleaved evergreen is native to Italy.


Perhaps the connection is that both Hippophae and Rhamnus are thicket-forming spiny shrubs? Or perhaps the relationship is one of shared ability to dye: Many berries of true buckthorns yield yellow dyes, while berries of sea buckthorn possess a yellow pigment that can stain skin when the berries are eaten to excess, hence another of its common names, sallow berry.


The "buckthorn" common name shared across both genera is also puzzling. Branches of both end in a woody spine, and a spine is a form of thorn, true. But what does "buck" have to do with any of this? 


Although Hippophae rhamnoides seems to grow like gangbusters in Europe, Asia, and western North America, it seems to require more careful siting in the East. My experience is that it declines in typically moisture-retentive and nutrient-rich garden soil so, likely, is best restricted to sandy, infertile, dry conditions, such as can be provided in containers or at the seashore. It would be great to hear reports of how well this species does in, say, Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is located entirely atop and amid dunes.


Hippophae rhamnoides is not seen very often in eastern North America—likely because of its preference for dry, sandy soil, which is rarely encountered there apart from the shoreline of some bodies of water. If sporadic reports can be believed, the species thrives in the Pacific Northwest; it is so popular in northern Europe and Russia that many female cultivars have been developed there specifically for variance in the size, sourness or (comparative) sweetness, profusion, nutrient content, and coloring of their berries. Here's a modest assortment available in the United States. These female cultivars are bred for agricultural use, and are all full-size; I'm not aware of a dwarf female, and would love to trial one. Sprite is the only ornamental male.


Rarely, even online. Also rare even at destination retailers, although this one does list it. My hunch is that Sprite is difficult to keep viable in quantity for propagation, growing-on, and sale when on the nursery display bench. In other words, it isn't a shrub that's happy in small containers.


By cuttings or layering. Given the preferred dry-and-sandy habitat, layering might be achieved easily by mounding sand atop the lower portion of the shrub, in hopes that buried stems will root spontaneously. Another strategy that dry, sandy soil would permit would be to plant deeply from the get-go.

Native habitat

Hippophae rhamnoides is broadly native to Europe and Asia; Sprite originated in Denmark.

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