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Blue honeysuckle berries gaining popularity among Western growers

Gaining popularity among Western growers

January 23, 2009  By Tony Kryzanowski


Berries produced by blue honeysuckle, a shrub that grows throughout
northern Canada, has a lot of commercial upside potential, particularly
in the large Japanese consumer market, according to researchers at the
University of Saskatchewan and members of a fledging growers
association.

14a 
Haskap, or blue honeysuckle berries, ripen in June, making them a good complement to later ripening berries in a commercial operation. Submitted photo


 

Berries produced by blue honeysuckle, a shrub that grows throughout northern Canada, has a lot of commercial upside potential, particularly in the large Japanese consumer market, according to researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and members of a fledging growers association.

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The berries are considered a delicacy on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, where they are consumed as fresh fruit, or in baked goods, wine, candies and ice cream.

What’s particularly exciting about commercial blue honeysuckle berry production is that it is quite suitable as a Prairie-based commercial crop because of its hardiness. Dormant plants have survived with the temperature falling to as low as -45 C, and blossoms have withstood temperatures to as low as -8 C. It is also an excellent complement to other berry crops, such as saskatoons, blueberries and raspberries, because it ripens in June, while these other crops ripen later in the year. This makes for more consistent cash flow.

With a taste that is a cross between a blueberry and a raspberry, it’s possible that wild blue honeysuckle – or its Japanese name haskap, as it is better known in the commercial market – has been growing on the back forty near a slough for as long as fruit-bearing shrubs have been growing in northern Canada.

Haskap and its commercial potential has already caught the attention of many Western Canadian growers and for anyone interested in getting in on the ground floor of a new commercial berry crop, it definitely fits the bill. Only about 100 hectares of haskap bushes have been planted in Canada so far. A growers group called the Haskap Canada Association has been formed, and its aim is to promote the marketing and production of this berry crop. At present, most of its members are in Western Canada.

14b 
The haskap berry is described as among
the easiest berries to harvest by researchers, who have used some
rather unique methods to pick berries in the past.
 
  
14c 
 Haskap berries are considered a delicacy on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. 
  
14d 
Haskap is native to northern Canada and can withstand extremely cold temperatures


 

The University of Saskatchewan has an active haskap breeding program aimed at producing tasty, productive, and hardy varieties. Two named varieties, Borealis and Tundra, as well as three numbered varieties have already been released. At present, growers are propagating haskap plant varieties to meet the demands of commercial growers.

University of Saskatchewan plant breeder and Haskap Canada Association board member, Dr. Bob Bors, has been largely responsible for uncovering this berry gem, managing the university’s breeding program, and bringing haskap’s potential to the growing
public’s attention.

“We have a plant sale one day every year and last year, we had thousands of people show up,” he says. “I would say that 75 per cent of these people purchased haskap.”

Three reasons he identifies for this level of interest is a growing public interest in the fruit industry, haskap’s early ripening threshold, and three scientific articles that have been published over the past year praising the berry’s health benefits. One article, for example, did a comparison with blueberries and pointed out that haskap has twice as many antioxidants.

From a northern grower’s perspective, it’s a dream plant. A haskap bush typically grows to between one and two metres, is non-suckering and non-invasive, and requires virtually no pruning. Fruit, which is a fat, oval-shaped berry, will begin to appear the year after planting, but it will take three to four years to reach favourable commercial productivity of about seven kilograms of berries per bush.

In the wild, Dr. Bors says haskap tends to grow, “halfway between where the woods are and where the swamp or standing water is located.” However, it does not necessarily favour a wet environment. He says that it has been grown on both wet and regular farmland, and actually grows better on regular farmland. It likes soil that has a little bit higher pH, but is not limited to the high acid pH preferred by blueberries.

“These plants will grow in a much wider range of soil types,” Dr. Bors says, “so if you like blueberries and you can’t grow them on the Prairies, you can plant haskap instead.”

Seedlings sell for about $3.50 per plant and growers should expect to plant about 1,975 haskap seedlings per hectare.

In terms of harvesting a crop, methods will vary depending on the varieties planted. Some varieties will drop their berries with a minor amount of shaking while other varieties only give up their berries after a lot of effort. Part of the University of Saskatchewan’s breeding program is to develop varieties with superior taste qualities that are also easy to pick.

“This fruit is among the easiest to harvest,” says Dr. Bors. “It doesn’t hold on as hard as a lot of other berries. There’s a good chance that a raspberry harvester would work on it.”

Other mechanical harvesters that would likely work well are saskatoon and cherry harvesters.

He adds that growers with only a few hundred bushes don’t require a mechanical harvester and, in some instances, growers can shake the berries off into a tub below.

Dr. Bors has identified both a domestic and an international market for haskap, although there is still a lot of work to do to both promote the berry and establish potential customer contacts. So far, Dr. Bors says the university has made contact with a few companies in the Saskatoon area that are interested in a substantial amount of fruit for gelato and ice cream.

“The ice cream people really love it because it has such a dark juice,” he says. “It makes the ice cream a deep purple.”

As far as overseas markets, he has had discussions with a Japanese pharmaceutical company that is developing a line of five health products based on the haskap. The company would require 100 hectares of haskap production in Canada to supply only one of its product lines during the initial trial phase. If the health products gain acceptance, the company would require a lot more.

Dr. Bors adds there are also a lot of smaller companies that would probably require smaller lots such as one freezer container per year.

In terms of what customers are prepared to pay, “a lot of them assume the haskap fruit should cost the same as blueberries,” says Dr. Bors. “Grade A, sorted blueberries are going for about $5 per pound.” ❦


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