It’s snowing again.

It’s been a rough winter here.  Yes, I know the rest of Canada is laughing at the West coast while we despair over a few measly snowfalls and a few weeks (on and off) under zero, but it’s driving us here in Lotus land crazy. We don’t know what to do with all this white stuff and it’s well past time to put in peas.

Hand in hand with the horror of repeated slushy meltdowns and extended freezes, goes dead plants.  In addition to the certainly dead and dishearteningly soft, there’s the ones we’re not really sure about yet, until new green shoots convince us that all hope is not lost. One after another pass inspected through my hands while I clean up the nursery, nicking the bark, looking for the glimmer of green that spells life. Bushes are frostburnt, newly planted perennials squashed into submission, tree limbs forlornly dangle after ice storms have had their way. It’s more than a little depressing.  I was wondering what to write about this month, while I would normally be lyrically inspired by the first of the spring bulbs and the imminence of cherry blossoms, right now I’m most inspired by the stuff I know isn’t dead.

The Haskaps.

How do I love thee, Haskap? Let me count the ways.  Firstly, cold hardiness. At the top of my list, presently, for obvious reasons.  Although we often have serious zone envy when it comes to more southerly regions, in the case of the Haskap the south envies us. The warmest USDA zone it can tolerate currently is zone 8, and that’s really pushing it. Most of the cultivars would prefer it much colder. To be really honest, they are not the best berry bush choice in my own zone 7, more of an interesting addition to the garden to provide season extension, as (reason to love it #2) it fruits earlier than almost anything else in the garden, sometimes even before strawberries. And you can grow it in zone 1! 1!! Haskap has been successfully grown in Moose Factory, which is an actual Canadian city name, I kid you not.  I also love it because it puts up with a huge variety of soils and plant combinations are virtually endless.

haskap-berry

‘Boreal Blizzard’ a new release from the University of Saskatchewan breeding program

The multiplicity of names is not helpful to the newbie. Haskap, Honeyberry, Blue Honeysuckle, Fly Honeysuckle (or swampfly honeysuckle, which makes me feel more than a little sorry for the people who named it.  I can imagine what boreal harvesting is like in a bog in the nice weather. Bug city.) It’s Lonicera caerulea, with a whole host of variety names depending on the origin of the plant and which botanist you’re speaking to. I defer to Haskap, for a few reasons.  The University of Saskatchewan breeding program, an invaluable source of information and stock, calls them that. The name Haskap is derived from the Ainu (the original inhabitants of Hokkaido) name for the berry. Honeyberry seems like a marketing trick, and calling it a honeysuckle just confuses people.

Named varieties are mostly  Russian and Japanese plants, or crosses of the two, but since it’s a circumboreal plant, there’s potential sources spread all around the northern world.

Cultivation

It prefers a cold, boreal climate (or at the warmest coastal temperate) and tends to grow wild in swampy areas.  I’m not saying that they should grow in low and saturated soil, but on a berm in said soil-yes. More on that from Dr. Bors of University of Saskatchewan here. Boreal chinampas, anyone? Keeping that in mind, some of the mildew issues that they can have I suspect are triggered by low soil moisture and planting should be sited carefully to keep water needs in mind. Shallow rooted plants can be fussy like that.  Haskaps are resentful of tillage as the roots naturally spread out quite wide and not deep, which should be just fine in a mixed garden, forest garden, or permaculture setting since we prefer no till methods anyway. pH is not much of a concern, which is promising for maximising your options- Haskaps tolerate from pH 5 to 8! In the wild, they will grow next to blueberries or cranberries and don’t seem to compete negatively with any specific plant family, so could potentially be worked into a number of plant guild combinations. They are tame things, and don’t self seed or sucker, and attractively blue-green and roundish when fully grown. LaHave farms in Nova Scotia has a great page with many more details on cultivation here .

Taste

220px-loniceraberrydiversity

The shape of different cultivars is hugely diverse

I want to be fair about this.  The taste of Haskap  berries is highly variable and often quite tart.  The brix is high in some cultivars, but always sweet-tart, and in the case of some, (usually the ones with more Russian parentage in them) a little bitter. Your response is going to depend a whole lot on your own sense of taste. They are truly complex tasting though, process beautifully, make amazing wine and juice.  As distinct as a black currants’ flavour is from red or white, the Haskap is not really like a blueberry or a raspberry, although the marketing would have you think so. It’s unique. If you only eat a few raw from one bush, you’re not really giving it a fair chance.  Haskaps should also be purple fleshed when ripe, not green inside.  They colour up nice and blue before they’re actually ripe so that can result in disappointment, too. It’s in the processing that they really shine, as the deep colour means it’s both pumped full of antioxidants and an effective food dye, and they seem skinless when cooked. It basically just dissolves, making fillings and jams smoother. Drying also enhances the flavour, and that’s the way the Japanese like to consume them. I had some in a yogurt that was practically transcendental.

Curious Tendencies

They have confusing pollination requirements. Haskaps do best when combined with other Haskaps that have different parentage but bloom at the same time. This is further complicated by growing the same plants in different climate zones where plant flowering may or may not overlap. There isn’t at present a comprehensive pollination chart of everything out there because commercial development is ongoing, widespread in multiple languages, and new varieties get released every year.  (Breeding with Haskap is actually fairly fast, because they can be started with fresh seed shortly after harvest and get to fruiting size quickly.) To further confound the issue, you have rebrandings and renamings. I saw Borealis being called ‘Mrs. Honeyberry’, and Aroura ‘Mr. Honeyberry’ by a local grower, confusing the issue unnecessarily.  Auroura and Borealis wasn’t obvious enough? Haskaps do not have separate sexes, they have perfect flowers.  They just apparently prefer an exotic stranger to a sibling. You’re really best to get multiple varieties if you have space to do so, if you don’t, then at least two intended as a pair. Planting strategies: U of Sk pollination strategy Chart for some of the most popular varieties: Pollination Chart Dr. Maxine Thompson’s varieties, with approximate bloom times here  I am working on consolidating information on Haskaps from the different breeding programs- they tend to have pollination charts on their own field material but not the intersection of plants from the other programs. You’re still best off hedging your bets trying several varieties at once! Then just get more of the ones you like and you’ll already have good cross pollination.

They can get mildewy.  As I mentioned, I suspect that they are sensitive to drought, and this may trigger mildew growth.  They also like going into dormancy early if stressed so may look like absolute hell in summer.  I know I’d like to recommend them as an edible ornamental but only if it’s not the feature. They are a pretty glaucous colour and bushy if grown in fertile soil, so you could– but if I were installing a foolproof, has to look perfect edible landscape, I probably wouldn’t.

Getting Some

Currently they are still on the trendy new plants lists and not widely understood. The pollination confusion doesn’t help, the fact that they go for exorbitant prices in northerly climates where they’re most needed (2 Gal pot goes for $25 in Edmonton, sheesh!) also doesn’t help, and people who buy fruit bushes for fresh eating in the garden were sold a raw bill of goods with slick marketing, incomplete information, and varieties that didn’t perform well in warmer climates. Early adopters may have bought ones where the flavour was distinctly meh.  Not encouraging.

But take heart! Breeders have been hard at work and if you are one of those in zone 5 or colder you can basically take your pick of varieties and likely do just fine. Due to the risk of an early bloom with no pollinators active, or refreeze after spring growth, people in zone 6 and up are probably best going with Dr. Maxine Thompson’s breeds which are tested in zone 8a and better suited to warmer zones with less risk of early emergence. Most retail garden centres by now have some Haskaps, although they may know nothing about them and you should do your own research if you want to ensure compatible pollination. Serious about getting a decent amount? You can order from LoveHoneyberry in the USA. For Canada there’s a list of propagators here

I want to thank Dr. Bob Bors, Dr. Maxine Thompson and Lidia Delafield for their dedication and hard work in improving Haskap varieties and extending the climate range possible to grow it in.