In the mid-1800s, the great transcontinental railroad was under construction. Thousands of Chinese workers were recruited and brought to America to build the western leg of the railroad. They swung hammers for the Central Pacific Railroad Company, set a record for laying 10 miles of track in a single day, and they left behind a botanical legacy for us: the goji berry.
The largest camp of Chinese workers in Utah was at the Sinks of Dove Creek, just west of Kelton, a present-day ghost town on the northwest corner of the Great Salt Lake. Goji berries have been found still growing there, and all along the old rail line to the “golden spike” at Promontory Point. The plants are drought-tolerant, enjoy full sun, and can survive the extreme heat of the Utah summer as well as the biting cold of our winter—the ones along the rail line have been surviving and seeding themselves for 150 years.
Also known as the wolfberry, the boxthorn, the matrimony vine, the murali (in India) and the Duke of Argyll’s tea tree, this deciduous perennial grows to a height of three to 10 feet, forming a rangy bush that is usually a little wider than it is tall. It is a long-lived member of the Solanaceae family, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, chili peppers, tobacco, and nightshade. The plant generally produces the bright red goji berries in its third year of growth, from small, star-shaped flowers that may be purple or white. In China, the leaves are eaten as a vegetable, and can also be dried and made into a tea. The leaves have an even higher antioxidant quotient than the berries.
Gardeners should prune the goji berry plant when it becomes too rangy for its situation. Pruning back will encourage more berries to grow and help control the thorns that develop on older wood. Starts of the goji berry are available from several nurseries in Utah. The Phoenix Tears Nursery in Logan sells cuttings from those same Promontory Point bushes that the Chinese workers left behind. The nursery had their plants DNA tested and compared with commercially available goji berries from Ningxia province in China, and found them to be an almost completely perfect match.
Goji can grow in almost any kind of soil, but prefers well-drained alkaline soil. They can easily be grown in containers or trellised like a vine. Plants can also be trimmed to retain a tighter, bushy or hedge-like appearance. Plant starts just after the last hard frost date or about a month before the first hard frost date in the fall (see chart on p. 24 for first and last frost dates throughout out variable city).
Goji berry plants can also be grown from seed. Soak the dried fruit in water for a day, and then break open the fruit and gently scrape the seeds out. Start them in a germinating tray—within a week you should see little roots out of the seeds, and you can then plant them out into starter pots. They will develop a taproot that will quickly reach the bottom of the pot. The plant will stop growing once the root gets to the bottom of the pot, so use a deep pot and be prepared to repot often! Larger sprouts and cuttings can be grown in five gallon buckets with drain holes punched in the bottom. Cuttings are easily taken from larger plants, and you can grow enough of your own plants to create a hedge this way far more easily than starting them all from seed (although that is exactly what CATALYST managing editor Pax Rasmussen is doing right now).
To plant goji in your garden, choose the area carefully. The plants will need pruning and will require attention if they are not to become invasive when they start to send out lateral shoots after the third year.
If you find you enjoy goji greens as a salad, you can grow some container plants inside a greenhouse or in a sunny window location for extra nutrition in your winter diet!