Carol Cloud Bailey
Plant Common Name
The tough, fast-growing silverberries, or silverthorns, are irresistible to gardeners looking to fill large spaces fast. There are about 45 species which make up the genus Elaeagnus, though there is some controversy about the number of species. Silverthorns tend to be large, evergreen or deciduous shrubs or trees and are mostly endemic to the temperate and subtropical regions of Asia, and there are other single species native to Australia, North America and Europe. All species fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, a quality which allows them to grow better in poorer soils.
Most of these shrubby woody plants are grown for their interesting leaves which are scruffy to the touch and eye due to a covering of brownish silvery scales. The leaves are elliptical, oval or oblong and alternate on the sometimes thorny stems. The branches often grow very long. Extremely fragrant, tiny white or silver flowers with yellowish centers are produced. These may be tubular to bell-shaped and are produced in clusters. They are usually followed by small round or oval berry-like drupes which may be bronze, green, brown, red or pink, sometimes with silver mottling. The fruit and seed are mostly edible and pleasant tasting.
Commonly grown species include Ebbing's Silverberry (Elaeagnus x ebbingei), a hybrid which is thornless and has lovely gray-green leaves and red fruit. It is very salt, wind and pest tolerant. Ebbing’s silverberry is a little more compact than other silverberries but still requires pruning. Thorny olive (Elaeagnus pungens) is a large evergreen shrub native to China and Japan. Its long, thorny branches are lined with scruffy grey-green leaves. It bears very fragrant flowers and red edible fruit. It is a good choice for erosion control on banks, though it has escaped cultivation in some locations. The Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) is a deciduous species with a wide distribution across southern Europe and Asia. It is fast-growing and tolerant of most growing conditions. These silverthorns have escaped cultivation in some areas and are considered invasive in much of North America except the southeastern United States.
Elaeagnus are some of the most durable shrubs and tolerant of most soil conditions, however each species and cultivar may have different cultural requirements and hardiness levels. Most are tolerant of just about any soil, include those of poor quality, as long as they are moderately well-drained. Full sun is preferred but shade is tolerated. Most silverthorns are very salt, wind and pest tolerant. These often large plants generally need plenty of room to grow and may require regular pruning to keep the long branches in check. They may be planted as hedges, wind breaks or screens.