The goji berry plant (Lycium barbarum), also known as a wolfberry (gouqizi, 枸杞) in Chinese, is a scrambling deciduous shrub with long, sparsely spiny weeping branches. It’s a Lycium (boxthorn) species that is a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade or tomato) plant family, and is native to China.
These plants crop on current year’s wood, producing purple flowers in early summer, which turn into bright orange, soft, mildly sweet and slightly bitter berries around late summer to early autumn. When dried, the berries are sweet and tangy. The fruit quality is best during hot, dry conditions, and diminishes with cool, humid weather.
Goji berries have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for over 2,000 years. They’re rich in nutrients, have high antioxidant levels, and considered a ‘superfood’. Studies have found various health benefits of goji berries, such as:
- A feeling of well-being and calmness
- Better athletic performance
- Better sleep
- Weight loss
- A boost to your immune system
- Higher plasma antioxidant levels
The antioxidants help boost the immune system and protect the body from high levels of oxidative stress and inflammation by fighting harmful free-radical damage.
Goji Berry Growing Requirements
Goji berries are able to grow in a wide range of climates, and are drought-tolerant once established, as they put down a deep tap root that takes time to grow deep enough into the soil.
They’re self-fertile, so only one plant is needed, but if more plants are required (for greater production), plant them around 2.0-2.5m (6-8′) apart.
Soil – Goji berries prefer soils which are moist but well-draining, neutral to alkaline soil (with a soil pH of 6.8 to 8.1) and rich in organic matter. They will grow well in moderately fertile soils, and will tolerate clay soils.
They can be planted in late winter while they’re dormant, or in early spring, to give the plants plenty of time to establish themselves, before they encounter hot summer weather.
Before planting, dig in plenty of manure to increase soil fertility, and add compost to increase organic matter and improve soil structure. There’s no need to fuss about the soil pH if it’s close to neutral (pH 7), but if the soil is too acidic, add some garden lime or dolomite lime to raise the soil pH.
These plants don’t tolerate heavy, wet clay soils, which can become waterlogged and cause the roots to rot. To improve drainage, dig compost into the soil. Gypsum can also be added as a clay breaker for sodic (sodium-containing) clays.
Light – Goji berries prefer full sun, around 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. They can tolerate partial shade, but will produce less berries with reduced light.
Watering – Keep the soil well-watered and moist in the first year as the plant establishes itself and sends its tap root down into the soil. After the first year, goji berries become quite hardy, drought-tolerant plants that survive well with less frequent watering.
Mulching around the plants (using a straw-like mulch such as pea straw, lucerne, hay, etc) helps retain soil moisture and keeps roots cool in hot weather, and also suppresses weeds all year round.
Feeding – Since goji berries prefer moderately fertile soils, they need to be fed once at the start of spring and once again at the start of autumn with a balanced fertiliser.
Use a good general purpose, solid, slow release fertiliser that comes as a powder or pellets, or manure. The purpose of liquid fertilisers is to provide a quick supplemental feeding once a slow release fertiliser has already been added.
If feeding plants with blood and bone or composted manure, which mainly provide nitrogen and phosphorus, use seaweed extract or sulphate of potash (potassium sulphate) as well to add potassium, which is required for flowering and fruiting.
Growing in containers – Goji berries can be grown in a larger pots, container and planters, which will restrict the size of the plant. Make sure to use a premium potting mix for best results.
They require a pot that can provide sufficient root depth and space. Start the plant in a 30cm (12″) wide pot, which will hold around 13.5L (3.57 gal) of potting mix. In the next year, transplant into a larger 42cm (16“) wide pot, which has a capacity of 28L (7.40 gal), and in the year after that, transplant once again into a 50cm (20“) wide pot, holding 52L (13.75 gal), where it can stay, unless a larger plant and pot are desired.
Goji berries can also be grown as indoor plants near a bright, sunny window that receives midday and afternoon sun, and will fruit. Use a pot around 20cm (8″) wide for this purpose.
Transplanting established plants from one spot in the garden to another is not a good idea, as they lose a lot of their root system when being relocated, especially the deep tap root that confers drought-tolerance to the plant. If plants that have been in the ground for more than a year need to be moved, transplant them in late winter, while they are still dormant.
Training and Supporting Goji Berry Plants
Goji berry shrubs have an interesting growth habit, the rigid stems grow vertically upward, then branch into many long, weeping branches which cascade down like a waterfall towards the ground. They grow 1.5-3.0m (5-10′) tall, and around 1.2-2.4m (4-8′) wide, so they usually need some kind of support to train them along to make all that the growth manageable.
To support goji berry plants, I find that a sturdy post on either side of the shrub with wires across them to tie the stems to works well to accommodate their height and width.
With this single-fence support system, two posts are 1.2m (4’) above the ground, driven 60cm (2’) into ground.
The posts are placed around 1.5-2.0m (5-6′) apart, with 2mm galvanized wire (12 AWG or American Wire Gauge) strung between the posts at 60cm (2′) and 1.2m (4′) above the ground.
Canes are tied to the wires with plastic-coated gardening wire twist ties, twine, plastic or fabric tree tie material.
How to Prune Goji Berry Plants
Goji berries fruit on the current year’s wood, so pruning is carried out to control excessive growth and regenerate new fruiting wood. They will usually produce some fruit in the first year, but not that much since they are directing a lot of energy into establishing their root systems soon after planting. Once they put on more growth, and develop more branches in the second year, they fruit fully relative to the size of the plant.
After planting, no pruning is required in the first year, but pruning is required in the following years in winter and summer to maintain vigorous new fruiting growth.
It’s best to prune back the long branched when they get close to the ground. Shorten them so they are at least 30cm (1′) above the ground to prevent soil splash during rain which can lead to the spread of fungal diseases.
Most of the pruning is carried out in the winter season, when the plant is dormant. season (winter).
- Remove any weak, damaged and crossing branches.
- Thin out stems if there are too many arising from the base of the plant.
- Remove old, unproductive stems, by pruning them off at the base. Make sure to leave a young new stem as a replacement.
- Shorten lateral (side) branches by removing 15-45cm (6-18”) from the tip to promote further branching and production of more new fruiting wood.
- Cut back longer branches to manage the size of the shrub.
During early summer, pinch off the top 5-7cm (2-3”) of terminal growth (the ends of the branches). This practice known as tipping encourages more lateral (side) branches to form, which produce more fruit than vertical branches growing straight up.
After around 3 years, plants may begin to sucker, sending up new shoots from the root system, separate from the main clump of stems. These will develop into whole new plants if left unattended.
Prune off suckers at ground level, or dig them up with as much roots attached as possible and transplant them in winter to create new plants.
How to Propagate Goji Berry Plants
Seeds – It’s possible to grow goji berries from seeds, even from seeds extracted from dried goji berries sold for eating!
Sow seeds into pots or punnets, indoors at any time (or outdoors in spring).
- Cover with 5mm (~ 1/4″) of sifted compost or seed-raising mix.
- Water gently and keep slightly moist.
- Place on a warm window sill, or in a propagator in a bright location.
- As the plants grow, they can be transplanted into separate pots, and then larger pots if necessary.
In spring, if the plants are sufficiently grown, they can be planted out into the garden.
Cuttings – It’s much easier to propagate goji berries from cuttings in late winter.
- Cut a branch that’s thick as a pencil or thicker, and around 20cm long.
- Then, cut the lower end at an angle to identify it as the bottom end and to make it easier to push it into the ground. The end can be dipped into rooting hormone if desired.
- Push the cutting into the ground, or into a pot filled with potting mix, so that the lower 2/3 is below the soil, with the top 1/3 above the soil.
- Wait till spring and the cutting will root and produce new shoots.
They can also be propagated from softwood cuttings in early spring, using a cut plastic bottle cover to preserve the humidity, as the cutting will have leaves at this time of the year..
Division – The fastest method for propagating goji berries is by division, which is usually carried out when the suckers pop up some distance from the parent plant.
Dig down deep to cut these new suckering plants free from the root that connects them to the parent plant, retaining as much roots as possible. These suckers can then be transplanted to form a new plants.
Division can also be carried out in spring and autumn, as the plants are still growing to produce new roots. The weather is also fairly mild, improving the chances of survival for the delicate, transplanted suckers that don’t have much roots to support them.
- Gao Y, Wei Y, Wang Y, Gao F, Chen Z. Lycium Barbarum: A Traditional Chinese Herb and A Promising Anti-Aging Agent. Aging Dis. 2017 Dec 1;8(6):778-791. doi: 10.14336/AD.2017.0725. PMID: 29344416; PMCID: PMC5758351. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5758351/>
- Dr. Axe, Goji Berry Benefits: Antioxidant & Anti-Inflammatory Superfruit, by Jillian Levy CHHC, May 15, 2019 <https://draxe.com/nutrition/goji-berry-benefits/>
Thanks. Very helpful, I have a well-established plant in my garden but wasn’t sure how to prune it. Is there somewhere I could learn more about the relationship of this plant to the boxthorn that grows as a weed in local parks (eg Darebin Parklands in Ivanhoe in Melbourne)? I’m wondering whether the berries of that other boxthorn are also edible and useful.
Lycium ferocissimum, the African boxthorn or boxthorn is native to South Africa is quite a different plant to the goji berry, even though they belong to the same genus, Lycium.
The African boxthorn species is a major weed in Australia and New Zealand, it was introduced to these countries as a hedge or barrier plant and became naturalized right through these places. Historically, in Victoria (Australia) planting of boxthorn hedges was a requirement for some early leases, but was proclaimed a noxious weed in some areas by 1904.
The berries of African boxthorn are eaten by birds and small animals, which spread the seeds of the plant.
The information on toxicity of boxthorn berries is very sketchy. All I find from authoritative sources is vague and unhelpful references, such as “The berries are edible, but are known to produce narcotic symptoms” or “fruit of African boxthorn may be toxic to humans”.
I found out that the plants were used medicinally by the Xhosa people of South Africa as a tonic for cattle ailments such as poor appetite and abscesses. They also used the root in lukewarm water to treat swollen legs. The leaves of the plant are also nibbled off by grazing goats.
After some further searching, I found a publication put out in 2000 by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, titled “The palatability, and potential toxicity of Australian weeds to goats” by Helen Simmonds, Peter Holst, Chris Bourke
Looking up the information on African boxthorn, I found the following:
The potential toxicity of weeds to goats
~ no known risk.
The palatability of weeds (not necessarily endemic to Australia) to goats when the weeds are grown in Australia.
M = moderate
If the berries do contain harmful alkaloids, it can’t be that hard to test them and determine which ones are present, and in which quantities. The amount of reliable information on this topic is disappointing! 🙁
Thanks once more. This is great info. I had browsed some African sites, out of interest, but what you’ve put together here is very useful because it gives a valuable overview of how we as Australians can understand this plant.
Of course, growing goji berry plants is an exciting and useful activity. The obtained fruits can be used during diets and treatment of various diseases. To tell the truth, goji berry plant is a truly unique thing which combines a great deal of useful properties and can benefit you to a great extent. I think that it is an absolutely universal product which is important to use and grow in the right way in order to take maximum advantage of it. From my point of view, it is really important to stick to all mentioned recommendations and protect this plant because such pests as Aphids, Colorado beetles and winter owl caterpillars can spoil goji. To tell the truth, I think that growing goji berry plants in containers is the best alternative if you do not have enough space in the garden because it is easy to grow and maintain them in pots.