My first introduction to Clayton was his comment on my post about cold climate seeds. On his recommendation I checked out the links in his sidebar. That’s how I found out he grows edible blue honeysuckle, a fruit that is extremely hardy. I thought my readers would like to know more about it, so I asked him to write a guest post.
Edible Blue Honeysuckle – A New Dream Crop for Prairie Berry and Fruit Growers
If you have been searching the internet lately, you may have come across this title on a blog about growing this very interesting fruit plant. The blog is my personal story about this tough plant which originates in the southern reaches of Siberia and the north of China and as far as the Kuril Islands north of Japan. Its botanical roots are in the Family Caprifoliaceae, Genus Lonicera, species caerulea. Edible blue honeysuckle fruit is also known as Haskap and Honeyberries.I first came into contact with the edible blue honeysuckle several years ago now when I was working at the University of Saskatchewan as a Research Technician in Malting Barley breeding. This department also includes the Horticultural Crops and I had always had a strong interest in fruit growing here on the Saskatchewan Prairies where the climate is a real test of hardiness. It is not uncommon in winter for the temperature to drop to -40C (-40F) on the prairies and with wind chills it can be even harsher. Brrrrrr! Thus it was very intriguing to me to first hear of edible blue honeysuckle sometime in the couple of years prior to 2006. Dr. Bob Bors and Rick Sawatzky (Horticulture Fruit Technician) began to talk of this plant and their work with it in our Prairie context. First it was in conversations and then at Fruit Crop meeting presentations on various occasions.
They were very enthused about the potential of the edible blue honeysuckle because of its hardy nature and good fruit production potential under difficult conditions. They also intimated in those early days that there seemed to be very little problem with disease or insect pests which are welcome traits in this day when less is more in terms of pesticides. All in all this seemed like an interesting plant to bring into the home garden and try. Currently I grow about three hundred of these shrubs, including ten named varieties and numerous seedlings in various stages of growth. I am also seeding to produce about two hundred to two hundred fifty more plants.
What Do Edible Blue Honeysuckles Taste Like?
The berry is a pale to dark blue, sometimes with a waxy overlay which makes it look dusty white. The flavour is described as a blueberry with black currant and black raspberry overtones. It seems the flavour is somewhat dependent on the level of polyphenols (antioxidants) and the soil types. They are certainly better well-ripened. The Russian types can be harvested all at one picking while the Japanese-area types tend to ripen over an extended time and are later by ten to fifteen days.
We have used the berries for pies, jam, jelly and deep-fried treats. Locally, we have a producer at the Farmer’s Market who makes ice cream. Mmmmm, good! The fruit can be somewhat tart so some mixing of fruit may be helpful. (We did a blueberry/honeysuckle mix and it was very good). You can find examples of their use on the internet. Many products are available, especially on the Island of Hokkaido in Japan, and a search for Haskap or Haskup will bring up sites which illustrate these products.
How To Grow Edible Blue Honeysuckle
This is a plant that is, as I stated earlier, very hardy, so should be able to be grown anywhere where there is reasonable soil for gardening, a little protection from winds (better pollination and prevention of berry drop), and moderate rainfall. Cold hardiness is not an issue! The flowers are known to survive at -7C or 19F. They require very little, if any, fertilizing, but can be encouraged with a very light application of low nitrogen fertilizer, probably after the blooming season, applied at the base of the plant.
They do require a mate to pollinate so be sure you get two varieties. Some pair up better than others, so ask about this when you are purchasing plants. Do not be fooled into thinking you are getting a male and female plant. This is not the case. Rather, both plants need pollen from another plant to be productive and set fruit. One of your plants may not have as good fruit since the pollinator varieties are sometimes chosen because their pollen works better on the good variety. But fruit from both plants will be edible! They should be planted with a good spacing between so ask about the final size of the variety you buy and allow at least five feet between the plants. This will give room for maintenance and harvesting. Commercial growers are encouraged to allow eighteen feet between rows if you are going to mechanical harvest.
Since they bloom very early, as soon as the snow begins to recede and temperatures are constant at 5 to 8 degrees above freezing, the blooming pattern is already set. The flowers are insignificant so this is not an ornamental. The developing fruit will need protection from the birds. Robins and cedar waxwings will fly right into the area while you are putting up the net. For most areas harvest will take place about six to eight weeks after the bloom is finished. This is somewhat dependent on variety. Pest control is not an issue so general weed control will be the only real work while the fruit develops and on into the fall after harvest.
Where Can You Buy Them?
Finally, which varieties are available, and what do you buy? There are several varieties in the species and those which have come to the North American gardener are likely hybrids of those species. As was stated above, the key is that you will need two plants, usually not related to each other. The selection process has really already been done for you and most places (remember you’re not buying a male and female) will sell plants which are compatible in terms of pollinating each other. The best information on varieties for your location is the local Horticulture Department of your university or Dept. of Agriculture. In searching for information, I have noticed that most northern states and the provinces of Canada have some information. Also check out the local tree nurseries, garden centers, or online – you may have to look for Haskap, Honeyberry or Blue Honeysuckle since nurseries are not uniform in their naming. I refer you to a good article by Craig Larson on the different varieties. Try them – you might like them!
More Information About Edible Blue Honeysuckles
Some good sources for reference on the internet are Plants for a Future Database for the North American cousins, some of which do have edible fruit and Wikipedia which has a good coverage of the included subspecies. Of course there is much information now coming out of various Departments of Agriculture and Universities who are trying to improve on the materials which have come from those places mentioned above. You will find that some of the very earliest information on breeding and selection will be found in articles by Russian plant breeders as well as other member countries that were part of the former USSR. More recently, there is the further development of materials for the Great Plains of the North American continent and the registration of names by breeders and marketers. In this information you will find the names Honeyberries and Haskap. These are still the basic edible blue honeysuckle which has taken on a new identity.
Some good reference sites
- Haskap Arrives in North America by Dr. Maxine Thompson
- Craig Larson’s Haskap Wine Blog
- University of Saskatchewan Fruit Program
- Haskaps and Honeyberries at University of Idaho
- You can follow my adventures with this berry here.
- A search for Lonicera caerulea will bring up many other sources of information and some great photos.
Clayton grows the edible blue honeysuckle as a serious hobby, researching and breeding these plants in the hopes of finding new cultivars suitable for marketing. His current favorite is “#51 in our seedling nursery #2.” Feel free to ask questions in the comment form. We are interested in hearing from anyone who has experience growing these berries–or eating them!