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DNA Gardens has 20 acres of nutritious fruit orchards.

Blue Honeysuckles, Haskaps or Honeyberries

A Prairie Storm
By Arden Delidais, DNA Gardens

This article was written for the Calgary Horticultural Society
February, 2007

Honeyberries (Haskaps) are storming the prairies.  This new fruit is so hardy!  The blooms are recorded to take minus seven degrees Celsius.  Odd in shape, the cylindrical fruit is long, not round and beautiful turquoise colored.  I say "odd" shaped because I am a Canuk.  However, as one Russian visitor to the farm pointed out, round shaped blueberries are "odd" to them since they are used to picking wild honeyberries much like we pick saskatoons.

The Russians started breeding and improving honeyberries from the wild about fifty years ago.  They collected wild strains from Kamchatcha to the Ural mountains.  Presently, the Russians have many varieties that are farmed commercially.

 Recently, these Russian varieties have been brought to North America, in large part due to an Oregon nurseryman, Jim Gilbert.  Gilbert routinely travels the world looking for exotic plant material.  He shared these varieties with the University of Saskatchewan to trial and test.  Of the original four trialed, the University eliminated two and recommended Berry Blue tm and Blue Belle tm.  Royalties are collected and sent to Gilbert who in turn, returns revenues to Russian breeding Institutes.

Honeyberries thrive on prairie soils that are naturally alkaline (high in pH).  We are sometimes asked for blueberry plants on the farm and I say, forget blueberries!  We can't grow them in our soils and honeyberries make an excellent replacement.  Blueberries require a pH of 4.5 to 5.5.  Much of our soils have a pH of 7 to 8.  Honeyberries have been likened to blueberries in flavour but without the seeds.  Flavour is hard to describe and varies from palette to palette.  You can eat them fresh or with cream and sugar.  What ever you do with a blueberry, you can do with a honeyberry.

This is the first fruit to produce for the season.  Fruit is ready in June and what a great way to extend our fresh eating pleasure by season-extenders like this.  Once the fruit has coloured up, throw some netting over the plants to keep the birds off.  The flavour improves if the fruit is left longer on the bush.  I think we are picking them before they are fully ripe.  Unfortunately, because there isn't a lot of other fruit to attract or distract the birds, they devour honeyberries. 

Cross pollination is required.  This means two-different varieties of compatible honeyberries need to be planted near one another.  It does not do any good to have two of the same variety planted together.  Berry Blue tm and Blue Belle tm will pollinate each other.  Cinderella is another Russian variety that is performing well for us.

Instant gratification is not usually associated with gardening.  If there is such an animal in the fruit world, it would be honeyberries.  These precocious plants start to bloom and set fruit when only one-year old.  They are truly amazing.  Yields of six and a half kilos have been recorded on Blue Belle, seven-year old plants growing in Saskatoon.  The plentiful fruits can be frozen on cookie sheets, bagged, and then doled out during the long winter season. 

The bushes make attractive ornamentals.  They have yellow blooms that attract wild bees and tame bees.  Bees like them which helps pollination.  They are broad  shrubs, with no suckering.  Height ranges from four to six feet depending on the variety.  We are testing  many varieties and there is a huge difference between them; flavour differences being most notable.  Grow them in full sun.  If not possible, try and find a spot where they will receive four to six hours of full sun a day.

The bright blue color of the fruit brings tremendous nutriceutical value to our diet.    Interestingly, the Russian literature says they are full of Vitamin P.  Olds College School of Innovation tested berries at DNA Gardens and were excited to find very high levels of polyphenols and anthocyanins. Dr. Anna Bakowska-Barczak, food scientist is performing research on bioactive substances in dark berries at OCSI. This research is sponsored by the Alberta Ingenuity Fund in conjunction with industry partner  DNA Gardens.  

The research data indicates that Blue BelleTM has a very high content of anthocyanins and polyphenols.   Polyphenols are plant phytochemicals with antifungal and anti-bacterial properties that defend the plant from disease invaders.  In humans, these compounds protect the body from cancer and enhance cardio-vascular health.

Honeyberries are good candidates for organic growing because they are easy to grow and do not have any insect or disease pests.

Honeyberry is a name trademarked by Jim Gilbert.  They belong to the honeysuckle family, Lonicera edulis and are native to Canada as well as Russia.  Older varieties have been available for years and have been sold as sweet honeysuckle.  They have very poor fruit quality compared to the Russian varieties that have over 50-years of intensive improvement.  Be aware of what you are buying.  Not all honeyberry plants are created equal so make sure to buy known, proven varieties.

The work continues.  It seems nothing stands still.  Dr. Bob Bors from the University of Saskatchewan has been collaborating with Maxine Thompson, the only Honeyberry plant breeder in the U.S.  Maxine has an extensive collection of Honeyberries,  native materials from Japan to Kamchatka.

Bob has been breeding these Honeyberries to get later varieties, to extend the season of harvest, attain larger and sturdier fruit able to stand the rigors of mechanical cleaning and harvest.  Of course, he is selecting for great flavour and hardiness.    He has released to DNA Gardens, three of these new varieties.  One of these fruits has been specifically selected for large fruit size and taste for home owners.  These varieties will be available in the future.  This is a wonderful application for tissue culture.  So… from one or two plants (a humble beginning), we will test the magic of tissue culture again!  Tissue culture is a method of using old fashioned plant propagation to grow healthy, disease free plants in test tubes in big numbers.

The Japanese are keenly interested in honeyberries.  Dr. Bob has been helping to stoke this fire.  It seems the Japanese harvest honeyberries in the mountains and prize them as indigenous fruit much like we do the saskatoon.  However, due to their large population, small land base and continued industrialization, there is far greater demand for fruit than supply.  Bob has spear-headed meetings between Japanese universities, Japanese companies and potential Canadian growers.  We had the good fortune to meet with this Japanese contingency when they toured Saskatchewan and Alberta in 2006.  There is an immediate call for 650-acres of this fruit.  Not to confuse the public, the Japanese know this fruit by the name Haskap.  Dr. Bob is leading the move to change the name from Honeyberry to Haskap berry. 

So… you can see, this "odd",  new fruit is creating tremendous excitement for both home owners and commercial growers.

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