Wolfberries or goji berries or Lycium barbarum belong to the Solanaceae family which includes among other plants eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes. Goji berries are predominantly grown in Asia and south east Europe. There are many varieties of goji berry plants. The Lycium barbarum variety grows in the Ningxia Hui regions of northern China. These are deciduous woody shrubs which grow to heights of 1-3m and the berries usually mature around August-October each year. The actual harvesting season depends on the altitude, latitude and climate. Other regions where goji berries grow are some northern regions of India, Himalayan regions of Tibet and Mongolia.
Goji berries have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 6000 years. They are rich antioxidant agents and also contain anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. They contain over 19 amino acids, carotenoids, 21 trace minerals, high levels of vitamin C and beta-carotene, vitamins E, B1, B2 and B6, polysaccharides, iron, linoleic acid etc.
Problems with commercially grown goji berries
Goji berries can be consumed raw, as dried berries, made into tea, added to various recipes or drunk as goji juice.
Most of the goji berries found in health food, retail and online stores are got from two specific regions of China – Xinjiang region in western China and Ningxia region in north-central China. Each plantation of goji berries can extend from 100 -1000 acres.
When we purchase commercial goji berries, we need to consider the growing standards that have been adopted. The soil found in many regions of China are high in pesticides and the goji berries imported from these places often do not meet the growing standards required by countries such as the United States. While many claim their berries are grown organically, these claims cannot be substantiated. Since people wish to consume goji berries for its health benefits, it is important to get organically safe berries. Hence the demand for goji seeds and plants are growing. In this way, people can grow their own goji plants and harvest them at the right time. This gives them control over growing conditions.
Tips on Growing Goji Berries
Goji berries are best grown outdoors. They require good sunlight, but they can survive cold winters. Here are some steps to grow goji berries.
If you have bought fresh or dried goji berries, you can get the seeds from them. Soak the berries to soften them. Then cut and remove the seeds. The seeds are very small. So, place them in a fine sieve, rinse and dry them. To get seeds from the fruit, purchase bulk berries which are better than the packaged ones. The seeds can be directly planted in the soil or soaked until they begin to germinate and then planted. Some seeds might not germinate. This is due to the treatment of store-sold berries. The other alternate is to check local or online stores for goji berry seeds that are ready for planting.
Another way to sprout seeds is to wrap them, for 10 days at least, in a damp paper towel or spread them on a tray and cover with a moist cloth. Make sure you keep moistening the cloth until the seeds germinate. Next get some small starter pots ready and fill them with seed-starting mixture that has been sterilized. Cover the planted seeds with a little soil and spray on water using a spray bottle. The pots must be kept in a warm area and periodically moistened until the seedlings emerge. A good way to keep the seeds moist is to cover the pots with paper towels or newspaper. This helps to retain the humidity within the pots. Keep checking the seeds frequently and the seedlings will appear in 4-6 weeks.
Transfer the starter-pots to a more sunny location, continuing to water them gently. When the plants reach 2-3 inches in height, they are ready for transplanting into small containers. These need to be filled with loose organic soil and placed in full sunlight.
When the goji berry plants are tall enough, transplant them into the ground or bigger pots. Make sure you only use organic soil, which can be mixed with organic compost. The soil must be nutrient-rich and loose to allow the roots to grow freely.
Plant goji seeds in spring. Select a location in the garden that has plenty of room for the mature plants to grow freely and which gets plenty of sunlight. The top layer of the soil can be covered with mulch to retain moisture. Make sure you water the plants well especially in the first growing season. This will ensure you get healthy plants.
The leaves of the goji plants are gray-green in color. In about three years, you will get the first flowers which are purple and white. Soon after the first bright red-orange goji berries will appear and cover the shrubs.
Moderate pruning can be done after the second year. This will ensure higher yields and healthy plants. To protect the plants from local wildlife, you can place a fence around them or cover with a net. Birds, rabbits, deer and other wildlife also enjoy eating the goji berry plants.
Goji berries are very delicate. So, wear soft garden gloves and spread a sheet under the bushes to collect them. Shake the branches slowly and let the berries fall on the sheets. Wrap the sheets and then place them in a bucket. For taller bushes, a long pole can be used to reach the higher branches. The berries thus collected can be dried, eaten raw or made into juice for consumption.
Problems when growing Goji Berries
While there is a growing demand for goji plants and seeds that people can grow in their own gardens, many people do not know the exact way to grow them. Goji plants take at least 3 years to mature and produce fruits. There are specific ways to plant and harvest these plants since the berries are very delicate. If they are not carefully removed from the plant, they can get damaged and not be available for consumption.
Other problems which can be encountered when growing goji berries are aphids which are sap-sucking pests. These usually attack most berry plants and netting maybe required to protect them. Goji berries may also produce suckers which need to be controlled. Suckers develop from the roots of many shrubs and can damage them. They can be controlled using chemical or non-chemical options.
Hence, gain a thorough knowledge of planting, growing and harvesting methods and you can enjoy the benefits of this ‘wonder berry’ right in your own home.