The Haskap berry -- never heard of it you say? You're not alone. Few people in Montana or America for that matter have. But stay tuned. Haskap just might be the next new superstar in the pantheon of superfoods.
So what is a haskap berry? For starter, haskaps closely resemble a blueberry in color -- a lovely deep purple-blue; in nutritive value -- they're extraordinarily high in antioxidants and bioflavonoids; and in flavor (kind of) -- tasting like a zingy cross between a blueberry, raspberry, and a bit of rhubarb thrown in for good measure.
But make no mistake. Haskap is no bluebery. Rather it is a low-growing shrub (4 to 6 feet) that belongs to a completely different plant family, Loncinera (common name, blue honeysuckle). More important, it is hardier than, easier to grow in Montana than, and has the potential for a broader ranger of culinary uses than a blueberry.
So you ask, why haven't I heard more about haskap and where has it been all my life? Actually it's been around here and elsewhere for a long time. Some of its wild relatives are native to Montana; several of its domesticated cousins may appear as ornamentals in your garden; and others have been used in their edible forms for many years in Russian and Japan.
And why might a haskap be better adapted to Montana than a blueberry? First, it does not require a highly acidic soil. Most any decent garden soil (even those with a relatively high pH), adequately watered and weeded, should be suitable. Second, it is extremely hardy -- the plant itself down to a frigid minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and its early spring blooms viable down to an icy 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, berry-loving Montanans may find the haskap to be a more versatile fruit to consume. Some varieties are excellent fresh, but they also can be used in a multitude of other ways including juices, wines, jellies, ice cream, and baked goods.
As mentioned earlier, haskap (also known as honeyberries in Russia) have been cultivated and eaten for hundreds of years Eastern Europe, Russia, and Japan. Most of the Russian varieties have a very short winter chill requirement, which means they break dormancy quickly during extended periods of warm winter weather, thus blooming quite early in spring. In short, Russian varieties of blue honeysuckle are well adapted to Siberia's long winters and short summers. That's all well and fine in Siberia (even much of Canada), but maybe not so much in Montana and other temperate zone areas of the United States. Because much of Montana's climate is more variable, punctuated by spells of relatively warm winter weather, it could cause Russian varieties to break dormancy far too early -- with damaging results to the plants and reducing the chances that any blooms will be properly pollinated by the bees.
The preferred haskaps for Montana may turn out to be partial or full descendants of Japanese varieties; those types are still extremely hardy, but bloom relatively late in the spring -- beginning in May in Montana -- because they require a higher total number of hours of freezing temperatures before they break dormancy than Russian types. That trait could help ensure haskap plants remain strong and productive over the course of their lifetime.
Over the past 25 years, Dr. Maxine Thompson, a highly respected researcher and professor emeritus from Oregon State University, has worked to develop new lines of haskap, using genetic material from northern Japan. As well, during about the same time period, Dr. Bob Bors, a top-flight horticulture specialist from the University of Saskatchewan, has interbred Japanese types with Russian strains. Both of these breeding programs have created haskap varieties with bigger, tastier fruit, and in some cases, with better adaptability to more southern climate zones.
Private Stock Perennials is growing and testing numerous of what currently may be the more promising varieties (for more information about those varieties, read the article below titled "Haskap Grown at Private Stock Perennials.") I plan to sell the berries and the plants in future years. Be sure to contact me if you are interested in giving either the berries or plants a try. Also, look for me at the Helena Farmers Market for more information and for haskap products. Sample some of the newest varieties of haskap -- and I'm betting you'll be hooked!
Aurora -- First planted in 2014, Aurora produced a small crop of berries in 2015. When it was released from the University of Saskatchewan, this variety was promoted as being bigger and sweeter than anything the program had created yet. Aurora is a cross between Russian and Japanese blue honeysuckle. Though I did not have many to sample, they did indeed live up to their billing and were very delicious fresh, with a sweetness none of my other varieties had and a nice crisp texture as well. I'm very excited to see how this one will perform in 2016, with 30 three-year plants in the ground and another 30 to be planted in Fall 2016.
Berry Blue -- Planted in 2012, Berry Blue is a pure Russian variety, purchased with Tundra and Borealis, to be used as a pollinizer. Most haskap/honeyberries are not self-fruitful, thus needing another variety nearby that is not closely related, for proper pollinization of the flowers. Berry Blue's buds begin to swell late winter and the plant is in bloom by early April at my site. The berries are smallish and tart with a slightly bitter taste. It tastes okay in baked goods, etc., but is probably best left to the birds.
Borealis -- Planted in 2012, Borealis is a vigorous grower with thick foliage that hides the berries. Purported to be the sweetest variety among Indigo Gem, Tundra, Berry Blue, and itself, I have never found it to be particularly tasty, even when left on the bush as long as possible to maximize its sugar content. The berries are difficult to find on the bush and have a wet scar when picked; thus they do not keep as long once off the bush. It's not a variety I would chose if I were to increase the size of my planting.
Indigo Gem -- Planted in 2013, this haskap seems like it will be shorter and more compact than other haskap. Indigo Gem blooms very early and produces smallish fruits. They are good fresh if allowed to fully ripen. Until I tasted Aurora, I rated this one as my best fresh variety.
Tundra -- Planted in 2012, Tundra has an open growth habit that allows the berries to be seen and picked fairly easily. After turning purple, the berries slowly ripen and hang on to the bush for a long time. To me the taste is average. I am confident my future plantings of advance varieties will exceed Tundra in quality and productivity.
The following are the newest varieties to be planted at my site; they will go in the ground Fall of 2016. A brief description follows based on the breeders'/propagators' observations:
Boreal Beauty -- A Japanese/Kurile cross, Boreal Beauty is reported by Dr. Bors to bloom one month after typical Russian varieties. Hence, it should avoid any danger of late hard freezes and will ripen here probably in mid to late July rather than late June. The berry is purported to be very large and tasty.
Boreal Blizzard -- This one is reported by Dr. Bors to be the largest heaviest berry yet in the University of Saskatchewan trials. It is also reported to be very tasty. There is a great deal of excitement about the potential of this one for large scale commercial applications.
Yezberry Maxie and Yezberry Solo -- Maxie and Solo are products of Dr. Thompson's breeding program and are purported to be some of the best from her trials. They have been patented and are now offered for sale by a U.S. company. Because they are pure Japanese varieties, they bloom relatively late and are purported to have very large berries of excellent quality.