Also known as Wolfberry, Goji berries have been cultivated for centuries in China as a medicinal food. The plant is Lycium chinense or Lycium barbarum, a member of the tomato family. It grows as a tall shrub, from 5 to 8 feet in height.
Some of the health benefits traditionally attributed to Goji berries:
- Improves eyesight
- Protects the liver
- Improves circulation
- Boosts immune function
- Promotes longevity
More recently, Goji has been promoted as a “superfood”. While it is true that Goji berries are a particularly good source of vitamin C and antioxidants, there hasn’t been much study to support other claims. Early research seems to support a role in fighting cancer and in improving eyesight, but more study is required.
Goji plants are relatively easy to grow. Due to a vigorous root system, the shrubs do well even in a rather poor soil, so long as it is well-drained. A position in full sun is best, but some afternoon shade would be fine as well. Water well until established. Gojis are hardy to zone 2, and require no winter protection in our area.
The plant has a tall, wiry habit, but can be trimmed back to a more attractive shape. Once established, Gojis will flower in early summer, and then continue to flower and set fruit though to fall. Very young plants, or plants provided with excessively fertile soil, may delay flowering to favor more vegetative growth. Fruit production is best after 4-5 years.
How are the berries consumed?
In Chinese cuisine, the berries were often dried and then added to a variety of meat, rice and soup recipes. They were also prepared in combination with other herbs as a tea. In North America, Gojis are available in juices and dried, although they are equally healthy and palatable as fresh fruit.
Why grow your own?
Two good reasons: cost and safety. The dried berries and juices can be quite expensive, and much of the supply is from China, where organophosphate pesticide use on Goji crops is reportedly a common practice. Growing your own is easy in our climate, and once established, you can have the benefit of these berries without the high cost or risk of pesticides.
We sell 2nd year plants in 1 gallon pots for $10. I am asked frequently whether these 2nd year plant will bloom and fruit in the current season. While it might be possible for a plant this age to bloom and fruit, my experience has been that Gojis will wait until they’re established in your garden, and are more likely to bloom and fruit in year 3 or 4.
Want to grow them from seed yourself? Hey, the more the merrier. I’d love to see more Gojis out there, even if I didn’t sell them. Here’s my advice: Goji’s are not difficult to germinate from seed, but they do go through a real awkward stage as young seedlings – ugly awkward. Frankly, it looks like they’re dying, all sulky and twisted and such. Stick with them – they’ll likely pull through.
One more tip: although mature Gojis can accept some drought when established, seedlings in containers are not able to put down the vigorous root system it takes to deal with dryness. Let the pot dry down between waterings, but don’t overdo it. The plants will show you with wilting (which can be a little hard to distinguish from the aforementioned sulkiness) and with dry brown lower leaves if it happens too often.