Elaeagnus commutata silverberry

Alaska Wildflowers | Yellow

Elaeagnus commutata Silverberry

Elaeagnus commutata silverberry

Common Names

chalef argenté
chalef changeant
wolf-willow
American silverberry
silver elaeagnus
silverberry
wolfberry

Synonyms

Elaeagnus argentea
Elaeagnus veteris-castelli

Subspecies

none

Genus: Elaeagnus
Family: Elaeagnaceae
Order: Rosales
taxonomic heirarchy

Etymology

The genus name Elaeagnus is derived from the Greek words “elaia” (ἐλαία) meaning “olive tree,” and “agnos” (ἄγνος) meaning “chaste-tree” or “sacred.” This combination likely refers to the plant’s olive-like appearance or fruit.

The specific epithet commutata comes from the Latin word “commutatus” meaning “changed” or “altered.” This may refer to the plant’s variable appearance or ability to change the landscape where it grows.



Common names:

Silverberry:
This name refers to the silvery scales covering the plant’s leaves and fruits, giving them a distinctive metallic sheen. The “berry” part describes its edible fruit, although it’s technically a drupe.

Wolf-willow:
This name is thought to be a translation of a Native American name for the plant. It may relate to the plant’s habitat overlapping with wolf territories or possibly due to wolves using the thickets for shelter. The “willow” part likely comes from the plant’s willow-like leaves despite not being closely related to true willows.

Duration – Growth Habit

Perennial – Shrub

Identification and Information

Elaeagnus commutata, silverberry or wolf-willow, is a fast-growing deciduous shrub growing 2-5 meters tall from a strong rhizome. The young stems are scaly and brown, fading gray or reddish-gray with age. The leaves are alternate, elliptic, lanceolate to oblanceolate, willow-like, silvery and scaly on both surfaces, and 2-7 cm long (twice as long as wide).

The inflorescence comprises numerous clusters of 1-3 flowers on the leaf axils. The flowers are very fragrant (some may find it overwhelming), short-stalked, and funnel-shaped. They have four-lobed, yellow corollas that are silvery on the outside and four stamens. The fruit is a long, egg-shaped achene (nutlet) enclosed in an oval, silver, dry, mealy berry, 9-12 mm long.


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Uses

For information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.

Elaeagnus commutata holds significant traditional value among various Native American tribes. The sole medicinal use found was from the Nlakaʼpamux (also known as the Thompson Tribe), who used a decoction of roots with sumac roots taken for syphilis. However, this medicine was also considered extremely poisonous. The Cree and Blood tribes were known to consume the berries, though many considered them primarily a famine food due to their dry and mealy consistency. These berries were prepared in several ways: mixed with blood and cooked, combined with lard and eaten either raw or frozen like ice cream, or fried in moose fat. Additionally, the berries were sometimes used to make jam. (NAEDB and Johnson)

The Cree utilized the bark to craft cord, and multiple tribes used the seeds for decorative purposes. The fruits were boiled to remove the flesh, and the seeds, while still soft, were pierced and then threaded, dried, oiled, polished, and employed in making jewelry and adorning clothing. When burned, the green branches give off a strong scent similar to human excrement, which has been used as a practical joke around campfires (Johnson, Plants of the Western Forest).

In addition to its traditional uses, Elaeagnus commutata is often planted for ornamental purposes and as a soil stabilizer in areas prone to erosion due to its hardy nature and attractive silver foliage.

One notable ecological use is its ability to fix nitrogen. This process is facilitated by a symbiotic relationship with Frankia bacteria present in its root nodules. Studies have shown that nitrogen fixation significantly enhances soil nutrient content, particularly in degraded lands. For instance, in Central Asia’s degraded irrigated croplands, nitrogen fixation by Elaeagnus angustifolia (a related species) in mixed plantations led to notable increases in organic carbon (19%), total nitrogen (21%), and plant-available phosphorus (74%) in the soil over five years (Khamzina et al., 2009). Another study compared the nitrogen content and herbage production under silverberry with adjacent grassland and poplar forest communities. It found that desirable forage plants, such as Kentucky bluegrass, had higher nitrogen content and greater production under silverberry. The shrub’s nitrogen-fixing ability improved soil fertility, making the forage more desirable for grazing livestock (Whysong and Baily, 1975).


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Distribution and Habitat

Map data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), NatureServe Explorer, iNaturalist, and Kew

Elaeagnus commutata is distributed across North America and parts of Europe and Asia. In North America, it is found in Alaska, Canada, and parts of the northern and central United States. Specifically, it is present in the northwestern states such as Washington and Idaho, as well as Rocky Mountain and central states including Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Minnesota. It is an exotic species in Maryland, Rhode Island, and possibly Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

There is little agreement among sources regarding the full extent of its range. For instance, Kew was much more conservative in the countries included in Europe and locations in Russia, but it included more Eastern European nations than other sources. On the other hand, GBIF displayed a much wider-ranging distribution, though many instances were fairly isolated. NatureServe Explorer also lists it as introduced/exotic in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. I tried to include only regions cited in two or more sources for my map to ensure accuracy (or at least consistency). I fully expect it to be found in more territories than listed here. This is probably due to its use as a nitrogen fixer in orchards. It may have a larger distribution due to introduction.

Its habitat includes meadows, shrublands, and forest edges, often in dry, sandy soils or gravel.

Classification

RankScientific Name (Common Name)
ClassEquisetopsida
SubclassMagnoliidae (Angiosperms)
SuperorderRosanae
OrderRosales
FamilyElaeagnaceae (Oleaster family)
GenusElaeagnus (oleaster)
SpeciesElaeagnus commutata

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References and Further Reading

Guidebook

Pratt, V. E. (1989). Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers: Commonly Seen Along Highways and Byways (p. 29). Alaskakrafts, inc.

Johnson, D., Kershaw, L., & MacKinnon, A. (2020). Plants of the Western Forest: Alaska to Minnesota Boreal and Aspen Parkland (3rd ed., p. 55). Partners Publishing. ISBN 978-1772130591.

Classification and Taxonomy

VASCAN. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from https://data.canadensys.net/vascan/name/Elaeagnus%20commutata

ITIS. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=27771

USDA PLANTS. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=ELCO

Etymology

Quattrocchi, U. (2000). CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names: Common Names, Scientific Names, Eponyms, Synonyms, and Etymology. CRC Press.

Marles, R.J., Clavelle, C., Monteleone, L., Tays, N., & Burns, D. (2000). Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada’s Northwest Boreal Forest. University of British Columbia Press.

Stearn, W.T. (2004). Botanical Latin. Timber Press.

Uses

Native American Ethnobotany Database. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from http://naeb.brit.org/uses/species/1374/

See Kershaw above (Guidebook)

Canadian Journal of Plant Science. “Nitrogen fixation by Elaeagnus commutata“. Retrieved 7/1/24, from https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/10.4141/cjps75-124

Map and Distribution

GBIF. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from https://www.gbif.org/species/3039274

NatureServe Explorer. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.156120/Elaeagnus_commutata

Plants of the World Online. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from https://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid.org:names:315523-2

iNaturalist. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/162212-Elaeagnus-commutata

Description and Information

Flora of North America. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from http://floranorthamerica.org/Elaeagnus_commutata

Hultén, E. (1968). Flora of Alaska and Neighboring Territories: A Manual of the Vascular Plants (1st ed.) (pg. 684). Stanford University Press.

E-Flora BC: Electronic Atlas of the Flora of British Columbia. “Elaeagnus commutata”. Retrieved 7/1/24, from https://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Elaeagnus%20commutata&redblue=Both&lifeform=4

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