As I stood by the Indus River in Ladakh, our friend (and monk at Thiksey Monastery) Chamba pointed out shrubs full of berries. “Leh berries,” he called them, named after the old capital of this region, Leh (pronounced Lay). I dutifully tried one, my expectations fulfilled as the light orange, firm berry met my mouth with a tart astringency–I couldn’t very well expect much more from strange roadside berries, could I? At least I knew they were safe–a monk would never lead you astray.
If only I knew then what I know now. At the time, I was already very familiar with the Sea Buckthorn berry as a supplement, boasting high Omega 7 fatty acid levels among other micronutrient benefits. However, I did not associate those pricey supplements with the orange berries growing wild in the deserts of the Himalayas. They are, in fact, one and the same.
Up until 2001, the sea buckthorn had no commercial value in Ladakh, save for fuel and fencing. The spiky branches of the sea buckthorn prove a quite effective natural barbed wire. These shrubs send their roots deep within the earth, creating a perfect defense against soil erosion in the dry, sandy areas this plant calls home.
It makes perfect sense, though, that this berry grows where it does in Ladakh. Rich in an Omega 7 fatty acid called palmitoleic acid, sea buckthorn is particularly beneficial for the skin, nourishing and moisturizing from the inside out. Both supplements and topical skincare products are created with sea buckthorn to take advantage of this soothing property. As a high-altitude desert, Ladakh is a harsh environment for the skin. Chapped lips and cheeks are common place even in the relatively mild summers, to say nothing of the piercingly cold winters. At these altitudes, UV rays from the sun are intensely penetrating, accelerating aging of the skin. “Leh berries” are a perfect counter to these damaging factors. In fact, sea buckthorn oil has UV-blocking properties, making it a healthy addition to many commercial sunblocks. Fun fact: its Latin genus name, Hippophae, translates into “shiny horse,” referring to sea buckthorn being used as a food source for Genghis Khan’s horses, making their coats healthy and shiny.
Typically when a plant grows in a harsh environment, it bestows “adaptogenic” properties to those that consume it. That is, their medicinal properties help the body adapt to stress, be it physical, mental, or emotional. Siberia’s rhodiola rosea, as well as maca root from high in the Andes mountains, are 2 more good examples of this trait in adaptogenic herbs: plants growing under difficult conditions develop therapeutic properties that help the human body handle difficult conditions.
While the people, culture, and landscape are absolutely gorgeous, Ladakh is without question a challenging place to thrive year-round, for people, animals, or plants. Being rich in micronutrients like vitamins C, E, K and carotenoids make sea buckthorn a useful bush to have around, especially since its berries can remain on the plant throughout the winter. Omega 7 fatty acids have a soothing, anti-inflammatory property on the mucous membranes of the digestive tract as well as the respiratory system. The antioxidant nature of the berries promote deep immune health and support healthy aging, inside and out.
With the help of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), an industry has grown around creating nutritional and beauty products from the Leh berry, although it is still in its infancy. When you have Dr. Oz and Andrew Weil talking about a berry that grows wild in your backyard, though, you know you (potentially) have a good thing going. When I returned to Leh, Ladakh this past May, I hunted down a few big bottles of so-called “Leh berry” juice and downed them. What a difference a few years–and a translation–make.