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The deer ate my gojiPosted Thursday, September 8, 2011, at 9:23 AM
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The dried, blood-orange fruits proliferating in the market are from shrubs known as Lycium chinense or Lycium barbarum, in the nightshade family, related to tomatoes, red peppers and the like. They are a common food item throughout East Asia, the Middle East, and in the countries of the Caucasus east of the Black Sea such as Armenia.
In Armenian vegetable markets one easily finds barrels of the inexpensive dried fruits. There, they are staples of the normal diet. When one sees the price and availability in foreign lands, it's easy to shudder at the price in the American market for the red Asian equivalent of raisins. In Armenia, for example, you could buy about 10 lbs. of the dried fruits for what you would pay for a pound in the United States.
The plant is a scraggly, thin, sprawling shrub without any distinctive features that would prompt you to notice it. It grows as a weed at the edge of my yard, and perhaps yours as well. Both Lycium chinense and Lycium barbarum are widely distributed in East Asia, and naturalized as weeds or alien shrubs outside of China. In fact, Lycium chinense is found in at least 15 states east of the Mississippi and five states west of the Mississippi, including Arkansas. Lycium barbarum is found in almost the entire continental U.S. (except Nevada) and half of Canada.
The name "goji" was never used for the plant or its fruit until it was popularized in the American market in the past decade. "Goji" is a phonetic twist on the Chinese name for the fruits, "guo qi zi." The fruits were not commonly called "berries" either. "Lycium" was the most widely used common name until someone came up with the marketing name "goji." Go figure. Of course, some are paying attention to wild goji berries in Eureka Springs -- the deer ate my goji.
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Steven Foster is a world renowned botanical photographer. He has published many books, including 2 for National Geographic
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