I recently came across an interesting article in the June 2010 issue of Harrowsmith Country Life entitled “Haskap? What-skap?” and despite my slight familiarity with edible blue honeysuckles (usually called honeyberries), I wasn’t prepared for the name-flap I encountered when I decided to do more reading about the interesting fruit-bearing shrubs. It turns out a lot of people think they are growing haskaps when they really aren’t….
So, let’s try to clear this up (and I’d recommend the Harrowsmith article by Tony Kryzanowski, because it contains very clear and precise information). Wild blue honeysuckles grow in nearly all Canadian provinces, except, most notably, British Columbia, which surprises me to no end because most of that province has the most agreeable climate of the entire country. Perhaps that’s a testament to the hardiness of the honeysuckle – they simply can’t abide the relative near-tropics of the west coast. (I would be curious if wild blue honeysuckles can be found in the north-east, around Prince George or Dawson Creek or any of those cities). Garden centres have also been providing home growers with cultivars of honeyberries for years, but for some reason not too many Canadian gardeners have given them a fair shake. (Perhaps this is because certain cultivars produce rather icky tasting fruit…plus you need to have more than one plant to ensure cross-pollination of the flowers). Apparently, commercial production of honeyberries has been going on in Canada for decades as well, but I’ve yet to find the fruit in any supermarket or even in a local farmer’s market. Varieties of blue honeysuckles are widely grown in Russia, China and Japan – indeed, in Hokkaido, Japan, blue honeysuckle berries are considered a treat, eaten fresh or in desserts or made into wine. Russian plants, along with hundreds of samples of wild Canadian plants, have been undergoing trials at the University of Saskatchewan for a few years, and in 2006, the University fruit breeding program was confident enough to release five cultivars of honeyberries that proved themselves as far as quality, hardiness, yield, and taste were concerned. Here’s the clincher in the name-game: ONLY these five cultivars produced by the University of Saskatchewan can be called haskaps. Every other plant is just a honeyberry. The U of S owns the name and the patent of the haskap cultivars, which also means that anyone who owns a true haskap and tries to propagate it by cuttings or any other method is breaking the law. Only licensed propagators can do the job. On some of the websites I have perused, quite a few people seem to think that they own haskaps when really, there have only been a couple of cultivars available in limited supply for the past few years (this will rapidly change as more plants are produced): ‘Tundra’ and ‘Borealis.’ The other three cultivars are numbered and are not yet readily available to potential growers. ‘Tundra’ is an unusually firm fruited haskap and will benefit commercial growers, because it can be successfully picked by machine; most other cultivars tend to have very soft fruit, such as ‘Borealis,’ which nevertheless has better flavour than ‘Tundra,’ and will be a big favourite amongst home growers. It appears that haskaps can also be cross-pollinated by regular honeyberries, such as the cultivars ‘Blue Bell,’ ‘Berry Blue,’ ‘Cinderella,’ and others.
So, what do they taste like? I’ve never eaten a haskap, but I’ve had honeyberries (not sure what cultivar) and they’re kind of like tart blueberries without the obvious crunchiness of the seeds. I think they would make marvellous jams, jellies and syrups, and would be tasty in pies, especially if mixed with a sweeter fruit like strawberries. They’re early producers, with fruit available in June (though this remains to be seen with the bitterly cold spring weather we’ve had in Alberta in recent years – I’m not sure we could produce such early fruit in this province). It appears as though haskaps are poised to take the small fruit market by storm and hopefully in a few summers, we’ll be fortunate enough to buy locally-grown haskaps at the grocery store and at farmer’s markets everywhere. That’s exciting!
UPDATE (and shameless personal plug): an article I wrote about growing haskaps in Alberta appears in the Early Spring 2011 issue of Alberta Gardener magazine.