How it all began

I (Bernis) first noticed honeyberry plants during the winter of 2010 as I dreamily browsed through one of my garden catalogues. Daunted by the task of growing blueberries, which depend on acidic soil, a cold hardy blue berry that would grow in any type of soil seemed too good to be true. So I put in my order for two bare root honeyberry plants and excitedly stuck the dead looking sticks into the ground when they arrived.

Later that spring after getting the rest of the garden in the ground, I made my annual pilgrimage back to Saskatchewan to visit family and friends. While there, I typed something like "cold hardy fruit Canada" into Google and started reading about something called haskap - a berry plant that was cold hardy to -54F and other features that sounded very familiar. I quickly realized that this must be very similar to the honeyberry plants I had put in my garden, but the University of Saskatchewan was claiming that the selections from their breeding program were of such quality as to be competitive in the Japanese market, calling them "haskap" after the Japanese name. My curiosity was piqued. Obviously, I would need to do some research on this topic, but before I got very far, I unexpectedly had my first personal encounter with the plant right there on the prairie.

While visiting friends on their farm I began telling them about my discovery of honeyberry/haskap plants and lo and behold – they took me out to see a row of bushes in their garden! Picked up the year before at an auction sale, now in mid-June the shrubs were thigh-high, indicating they were probably a couple of years old, and the fruit was starting to turn a deep purplish blue color. We found a few of the strangely shaped oblong berries ripe enough to sample. My lips puckered as I thought, "this is sour", but before I knew it the thin-skinned berry melted away and a sweet sensation lingered in my mouth. Later that summer I asked my friend what they had made with the berries, and she said, "Nothing. My son ate them all – right off the bush!"

Thus began my journey into the world of Honeyberry/Haskap/Edible Blue Honeysuckle. First of all I had to try and figure out the nomenclature. Jim Gilbert of Northwoods Nursery in Oregon was one of the early pioneers in bringing Russian plants to the USA and he dubbed his varieties "honeyberries".  Probably a good idea since "edible blue honeysuckle berry" is quite a mouthful, and the Russian word "zhimolost" would just draw a blank to the English speaker! But the Canadians wanted to maintain their international profile so I would become bilingual and research "haskap" as well. I visited a propagation nursery right there in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, seeing how they clone the mother plant by snipping off the tips of new growth and nurturing them in a special solution until roots develop for planting into peat containers. I learned that a non-related variety was needed for pollination and that one of these pollinizer shrubs serves up to eight other plants. Production and taste is dependent on variety, climate, bee population for pollination, and soil condition. Select varieties are viable for zones 2-8, grow from 3-8 feet tall, and 4-7 feet in diameter. And should they make it past the mouth, I have been told that the sweet/tart fruit works great fresh or frozen in any blueberry recipe – pies, jam, jelly, muffins, pancakes, cobblers, even in home-made ice cream!

I saw the market for haskap was taking off like wildfire across the prairies, and indeed all across Canada. A lot of information and first hand experience is available in western Canada largely due to the cooperation of the University of Saskatchewan with local growers both of who have been testing their cultivars for several years. Some farmers are going commercial, planning to use cranberry pickers to harvest the berries, while others are focusing on U-pick operations. Precautions do need to be taken against birds, deer, and weeds, and it has been interesting to talk to people who are exploring organic ways to combat these pests, such as netting, guard dogs and geese! So when do the bushes start bearing? While honeyberries bear fruit on year old wood, it takes 2-3 years for any significant amount of berries after planting. After five years, one grower's waist-high bushes were loaded with approximately ten pounds of beautiful blue berries. She took off about 1 1/4 ice-cream pails per plant, and that was after a terrible windstorm had swept through her orchard.

Upon returning to Minnesota I eagerly checked on my fledgling honeyberry plants. A few leaves sprouted out of one of the stems, but the other variety still looked like a dead stick, and remained so for the rest of the summer. Having found many good reasons for trying the Canadian plants, I started taking orders from some other gardening enthusiasts and nurseries and ended up importing 700 plants in September of 2010. I had 120 bushes left over that went into our garden plot. While initially quite a skeptic, a few months later my husband surprised me by saying we should bring some more plants down for sale in the spring, and that we have finally discovered how to make good use of that empty acre of land - just right for a little U-Pick operation!