What Are Goji Berries and Are They the Same As Wolfberries?
There’s a marvelous little red berry that grows all around the world, and people in different places call it by different names. Many English speaking people call it a Wolfberry, and nowadays even more English speakers are calling it a Goji Berry. But it’s really the very same thing.
As we all know, Science assigns two Latin names to every botanical organism, a genus and a species. Two plants that are even a little different from each other have different species names. Thus, if two plants have the same genus and species names, they’re the same plant. People can call them by different names, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re actually the same thing.
The Goji berry/Wolfberry plant, whose genus is Lycium, has two closely related species. One species is known as Barbarum and the other is Chinensis. Both species grow in many places on the earth.
Since people in different countries tend to speak different languages, it’s not surprising that Chinese and Tibetan people don’t call these berries wolfberries. China has many dialects. The plant is frequently called gǒuqǐ and the berries are called gǒuqǐzi (zi means “berry.”) “Goji” is a simplified pronunciation of gǒuqǐ.
A similar word can be found in other languages. For example, in Korea the berry is called gugija, and in Thailand it is known as găo gè. Tibetan has many names for the berries, including qouki, qou ki ji, quak qou, kew ji, and kew ki. In Japanese the plant is called kuko and the fruit is known as kuko no mi or kuko no kajitsu.
In about 1973, the word “Goji” began to be used for the first time in English so English speakers could have a word for this berry that was similar to these Asian words. Since then, the word “Goji” has been exploited by many marketers as the berries have appeared in more and more natural foods stores in the U.S. The new word “Goji” is now quite commonly used.
It’s not really clear where the word “wolfberry” originated. One theory is that it comes from the place name “Lycia”, the ancient name for Anatolia, in Turkey, and “Lycia” can be heard in the name Lycium Barbarum. “Barbarum” means that the wolfberry plant might have come from elsewhere, such as China, originally.
But this doesn’t explain why it has the word “wolf” in it. Thus, another possibility is that Lycium Barbarum comes from the Greek word “Lycos,” or Wolf. Wolves do eat berries and other fruits to get needed fiber in their diets. They also eat tomatoes, the Latin name of which means “Wolf Peach” (Solanum lycopersicum.) The word “lycos,” or wolf, can be seen in the Latin.
The genus Tomato (Solanum) contains another species, lycocarpum, which translates to Wolf Apple. This medium sized yellow tomato isn’t familiar to many of us because it grows in South America. South American wolves eat them! It’s not the same plant as the tomato we’re used to in North America. What’s my point? I’m getting to that…
Goji berries and Wolfberries are in the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), and so are tomatoes! Nightshades are an important source of food and spice. Nightshade species include potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, chili peppers (capsicum), deadly nightshade (belladonna), datura (jimson weed), tobacco, mandrake, wolfberry and many more.
Many of the species in this important family of foods are used in making herbal medicines by native peoples all around the world. Some of them have psychoactive properties. Goji berries are legendary as a medicinal plant and have been used as such for many centuries in many countries.
Goji berries and wolfberries have lots of other names such as boxthorn, Duke of Argyll’s Tea Tree, Matrimony Vine, Bocksdorn, Cambronera, Chinese Wolfberry, and Red Medlar.
The point here is that Lycium Barbarum and Lycium Chinensis are two completely different species, two completely different plants. Many people proclaim different names for them. They claim, for example, that “Tibetan Lycium Eleagnus Barbarum” is the REAL Himalayan Gogi berry, even though it doesn’t actually exist as a species.
There’s no question that these two species have different medicinal and nutritional properties, BECAUSE they’re different species. In fact, it’s not only that different species are different from each other, it’s also true that all the many VARIETIES of any one species are somewhat different chemically and therefore nutritionally.
In some mountainous areas of Tibet and northern China there is what is commonly known as the “Goji belt,” a fertile high altitude region where Goji plants are cultivated and grow wild. The “highest quality” Goji berries are produced in the best location and climate, which turns out to be this Goji belt. This is because of the purity of the water and the mineral-rich soil washing down from the high mountains.
The political strife going on between Tibet and China is well known. There is also Tibetan/Chinese political strife about what defines a Goji berry. From a Western perspective, this is just plain confusing.
Additionally, the name Tibet carries an unmistakable mystique. It’s therefore easy for Western marketers to capitalize on it, claiming the superiority of TIBETAN Goji berries over all others. But, as we’ve shown, from a scientific perspective, “Tibetan” Goji berries don’t exist.
Tibet, a country more vertical than horizontal, mostly dry, infertile and arid, with few roads among the highest mountains in the world, is not famous for farming. It’s adjacent to China. The political boundaries really don’t matter to the land or the Goji plants; instead, as has been mentioned, the soil and the climate are the important factors when growing Chinese wolfberries and Goji berries.
The highest quality berries have the highest levels of glyconutrients and are grown in Ningxia and Xinjiang provinces in China, right in the Goji belt. These areas have exceptional growing seasons, unusually alkaline soil, adequate rainfall and extreme temperature fluctuations from 102 to -16 degrees F.
The Goji belt produces four grades of Goji berries: super, king, special and Grade A. The largest berries are “super,” second largest are “king,” etc. You might find marketers advertising their berries as the biggest, but they’re still all the same berry, Lycium Barbarum. They’re that unless, of course, they’re Lycium Chinensis.
Wolfberries, Gojis, they’re wonderful. It’s easy for politics and marketers to confuse and blow smoke all around a bushel of Goji berries or Goji juice. However, nothing clouds the central fact that this unique little berry is the biggest nutritional powerhouse in the world!
Written by: Rachel Trueblood