Haskaps (Lonicera caerulea)

Haskap ‘Borealis’ in Bloom

By Lenore Linton, Master Gardener

I first discovered haskaps when I was taking courses required for my Master Gardener certificate during the summers of 2006 to 2008. These courses were offered at the University of Saskatchewan during “Hort Week.” In those years there was much excitement around the university’s fruit breeding program of cherries and haskaps, directed by Dr. Bob Bors and Rick Sawatzky.

One of the required Master Gardener courses, “Safe Use of Pesticides and Alternatives,” was instructed by Lynda Mathews, who also worked with Dr. Bors in the fruit breeding program. As well, she taught a course “Fruit Growing on the Prairies,” which I took. Lynda’s work with the fruit program included developing recipes using cherries and haskaps. In 2007 I had the opportunity to taste these fruits at a supper where Master Gardener certificates were presented. This meal was open to others besides those receiving certificates. Even though I would not be receiving my Master Gardener certificate until the next year, I chose to attend. Lynda was in charge of dessert ‘ice cream with a choice of cherry or haskap sauce’. I tried the haskap sauce and was immediately blown away by its deep rich flavour. It was then and there that I decided I must have haskap bushes in my garden.

Although two haskap cultivars, ‘Borealis’ and ‘Tundra’, had been released to fruit producers by the University of Saskatchewan in 2007, they were not yet commercially available in nurseries. ‘Tundra’ was recommended for commercial growers because the fruit was firmer, not as prone to injury during harvest, and had a longer shelf life if refrigerated. ‘Borealis’ was considered more suitable for the home gardener. The only consumer cultivars that were available were called Honeyberries, Russian cultivars such as ‘Berry Blue’, ‘Blue Belle’, and ‘Honey Sweet’.

However, I learned that ‘Borealis’ was available as tissue culture plants from a firm in Alberta. The minimum order was ten plants. I persuaded three other gardening friends to divide the plants and the cost with me. I do not remember the cost, but do remember the large flat box that arrived in the spring of 2008 (or was it 2009?) containing eleven ‘Borealis’ plugs in two-inch pots and four pollenizer plugs (I think they were ‘Berry Blue’). We did not realize that the plants would be so small.

We also did not yet know that “haskap varieties are self incompatible and need compatible varieties for cross pollination” (Williams and Bors, p.198). It is important that both cultivars bloom at the same time. They will both produce fruit. There are not male and female plants as is sometimes advertized. We each planted two ‘Borealis’ and one pollenizer. There was one ‘Borealis’ left over so we planted it in the church garden and I bought a honeyberry cultivar ‘Berry Blue’ from a local garden centre as a pollenizer.

These small plants grew quickly, and by the third spring there were flowers and then berries in June. In my garden the pollenizer was taller than the ‘Borealis’, but in the church garden ‘Borealis’ had caught up with the ‘Berry Blue’. Even though my plants continued to flower and produce fruit, the harvest was never enough to make jam or jelly. Meanwhile the two plants in the church garden produced much more fruit, which folks picked and ate from the plant. What was the difference? My plants were planted in better soil and watered more regularly, while those in the church garden did not receive same watering and attention as the flowers and vegetables did. However, in spite of the poor soil they continued to thrive in the hot windy space beside the wire fence. I concluded that it must be the sunlight and warmth that made the difference.

In the fall of 2015 we moved the two ‘Borealis’ plus a new pollenizer ‘Aurora’ to a sunnier area in our garden. As noted in a University of Saskatchewan online resource, “‘Aurora’ was originally selected to be a companion plant for Borealis, Tundra, and Indigo series haskaps.” Like the haskap growers in Saskatchewan, I soon found that ‘Aurora’ was superior to both ‘Tundra’ and ‘Borealis’. The fruit was bigger and tasted sweeter. The experts at the University of Saskatchewan say it is not sweeter but just less acidic. It was not until I moved the haskaps to the sunny location that I was able to harvest enough fruit for cooking and preserving.

There are many reasons for me to continue growing haskaps. These small well-behaved shrubs have been bred for our prairie climate. They are hardy in zone 2 and the flowers survive frost of -7 degrees Celsius. Haskaps are tolerant of most soils, but do best in well-drained loam or sandy loam. They tolerate clay soils if well-drained. Haskaps are shrubs that grow four to seven feet tall and about four feet wide, so they are well suited to the urban yard. Unlike the University of Saskatchewan’s sour cherries, haskaps do not sucker. All haskaps ask for is a sunny location in soil free of weeds and grass. Their wide shallow root system cannot compete with grass or weeds.

Haskaps are among the earliest shrubs or trees to bloom in our gardens, but their display does not compare with the show presented by saskatoons, cherries or apples. Our reason for growing haskaps is to harvest their fruit. These often odd-shaped dark blue berries are one of the most nutritious berries grown in Canada, rivaling blueberries when tested for anti-oxidants.

We made the same mistake that many others made when first picking haskaps. When the fruit is a dark purplish blue with a surface bloom similar to that found on plums, they look ripe, but when you bite into them the inside is still green and they don’t taste good. The flavour of a ripe haskap should be like a rich blend of raspberries and blueberries. Check to be sure the berries are fully ripe before harvesting. If they taste good, they are ready to pick.

Haskaps ready for the freezer

If the haskaps are not going to be eaten soon after picking, we freeze them by spreading the berries out in a single layer on a pan and then putting it in the freezer. Once frozen, the berries are poured into three cup containers (empty plastic peanut butter jars work very well) and kept frozen until they are ready to use.

There are many ways to use haskaps: sauces, smoothies, pies, as well as jellies and jams. Because haskap berries have very small seeds that are not detectable when eaten, and skins that dissolve completely, they are great when used to make ice cream, or fine sauces such as toppings for cheese cake or other fine desserts. For some, this is an advantage over seedier fruits like raspberries. There are many recipes for using haskaps on the Canadian Haskap Association web site. I have made haskap jam using “Certo” and using their packet’s recipe for blueberry jam. I also found a recipe online for haskap jelly using liquid “Certo” and the directions given for concord grape jelly.

My haskap plants do not seem to produce the six to ten pounds of fruit per bush as estimated by the University of Saskatchewan fruit breeding program. I am contemplating replacing one of my less productive ‘Borealis’ bushes with a ‘Honey Bee’ bush, which is fast-growing and high-yielding, and is compatible with both ‘Aurora’ and ‘Borealis’. I have not yet needed to use netting to protect my haskaps from birds. I attribute this to the fact that the fruit on the Borealis bushes is hidden under the leaves, and not observed by birds. You have to lift up the branches to see the fruit. Both ‘Aurora’ and ‘Honey Bee’ grow more upright than ‘Borealis’ and their fruit is more visible, so I might need the added task of netting my haskaps in the future. At 84, how many haskap bushes do I need?

In writing this article I have consulted Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens by Sara Williams and Bob Bors, as well as the Gardening portal at the University of Saskatchewan web site. I recommend anyone contemplating growing haskaps or other fruits to consult Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens.

Haskap Compatibility, Flowering and Ripening Charts of U of SK Varieties, Bob Bors, 2016 https://gardening.usask.ca/documents/Haskap-bloom-ripe-charts.pdf

Photos by Lenore Linton
Published: July 2022