Monday, 23 June 2014

Haskap Berries

So! Those haskap berries that I put in the muffins in the previous post: what the heck are they? Believe it or not, they are a form of honeysuckle. They are originally from Japan and north-eastern Asia, and have been grown in Japan and Russia for their fruit for many years. Serious breeding efforts started in the 1950's.

Haskaps were brought to North America some time ago, but were varieties selected as landscape plants. Apparently, their fruit tasted terrible! So plant developers here knew they were edible, but did not think they were worth pursuing. It wasn't until the 1990's that Jim Gilbert of One Green World Nursery in Molalla, Oregon acquired several Russian varieties bred as fruit, and began promoting them, that anyone in North America considered them as a food crop. Since then they have become a bit of a fad, and you can readily find them available as plants at nurseries, even the ones set up by grocery or hardware stores in their parking lots for the season.

The University of Saskatchewan has been very active in breeding and promoting them. They are well-suited to our northern climate, and will grow in poor, soggy soil - indeed, they prefer that, being plants from the sides of rivers in their wild state.

Two years ago we bought three plants from T & T Seeds. They were  Borealis, Tundra, and one plant sold as a pollinator, which for some reason I suspect of being Berry Blue. Did it actually have a label when it arrived? Maybe. At any rate, it is typical for haskaps to be sold in sets of 2 or 3, as one plant will not produce fruit unless there is a suitable pollinator nearby. Just because you have 2 different varieties, does not mean that they are guaranteed to pollinate each other. They must not be too closely related, and that can be a problem given that many of these plants come from breeding programs with a fairly narrow range of genetic material to draw upon. The University of Saskatchewan page has a chart at the bottom which will help you choose if you are not buying them a preselected set.

Under ripe berries can taste a little bitter, and we thought the pollinator tasted a little bitter even when ripe. None of the varieties we have tried - and I'm pretty sure we now have 4 or 5 different ones in our garden - have been outstandingly sweet; not too surprising in a fruit that ripens this early. They are tart, verging as noted on the bitter, and the flavour is not particularly distinctive. Nevertheless, we are very happy we decided to give them a try and they will be a good addition to our garden.

What makes them so appealing to us, even though the flavour is a little on the ho-hum side? Well, the plants themselves are very attractive. The leaves are a standard oval, in a lovely light green, but with a slightly fuzzy - visually at least - texture. They are also attractively arranged, somehow. The flowers are not showy and are hidden by the leaves at any rate. This is not a showpiece of a plant, but it is a fine, fine shrub as a background for perennial flowers and other more flamboyant shrubs. They are also tough, tolerant of varying conditions, quick to get established without growing out of bounds, and amenable to trimming and pruning - a very good ornamental garden plant, in fact. The berries are a bonus, and given that they ripen extremely early, a very nice bonus indeed. They get picked with the very earliest of our earliest strawberries, when we are absolutely panting to get some fresh fruit from the garden.

The berries are bit soft and probably won't keep too well. I suspect they would freeze, but we won't be able to try that this year - we expect to eat them all! They should make good jam, I would think, but again, that will have to wait until our plants are more established. This is only their second year in our garden, after all.

If you decide to plant haskaps they are, as noted, pretty tolerant of varying conditions. They do like plenty of water, although I suspect they will tolerate some late-summer drought, especially once they are established. But give them a good moist spot if you can. The local birds did not discover them last year until fairly late in the season, but once they did they stripped the bushes. This year we are keeping them covered with bird netting. The birds seem to have forgotten them again, but I suspect once they are on their mental map of edible berries, they will be back at them with much enthusiasm.

Given the virtues of haskaps, I think they will continue to become more popular. I also suspect that as breeding efforts continue, the flavour of newer varieties will also continue to improve. I suspect it won't be long before we are seeing commercial plantings of haskaps, and fresh and processed haskap product available. Even once they are available commercially though, if you have a modest garden space or more they will continue to be well worth planting yourself for their early fruit and season-long beauty in the garden.

1 comment:

Curious Chris said...

I've just started getting berries from my "Honey Berries". As you say, a fairly indifferent flavour and quite tart. It's funny that my so called pollinator plant is the most prolific. I've been mixing them with the strawberries so they are quite good that way. Enthusiastic plants. I planted them mostly for the birds so they are welcome to them when they find the bushes.