Text by Rose Willow for the March/April 2016 issue of Horticulture.
For hundreds of years, the haskap berry (Loniceracaerulea) has been prized in Japan, where it’s called “the berry of long life and good vision.” In the 1950s, Siberian scientists took interest in the shrub, a native of Asia, Europe and North America, and began a breeding program. Around that time, the nutrient-rich berry made its way to Canadian and United States markets. Those early cultivars looked attractive, but the taste of the berries left much to be desired. Fortunately, new varieties have been developed that both suit the home garden and produce delicious fruit. The haskap mingles tart with sweet; it combines the essence of raspberries and blueberries with strawberries. Its flavor complexity, coupled with its outstanding nutritional value, makes this ancient berry an up-and-coming favorite in the edible garden.
Also called the honeyberry or blue-berried honeysuckle, the long-lived haskap suits itself to the home garden. It can be pruned to control its shape, making it a suitable subject for a hedge. Haskaps can also be grown in pots that hold at least 32 quarts of soil; just don’t let them dry out. These tough, adaptable plants will produce good crops even in the partially shaded areas of a deck or patio. If you put the containers on casters or use a dolly, they can be moved to different locations for additional sun exposure and to make harvesting the berries even easier (more on that later).
In the garden, plant haskap shrubs in the spring or fall in full sun or part shade. They prefer rich, moist, loamy, well-drained soil. Plants reach an average of four to five feet in height and width, so space them about that wide apart on center to allow for air circulation. To establish a deep root system, position the transplants slightly lower in the soil than they were growing in their nursery containers.
The haskap requires cross-pollination for fruit production, so select at least two different varieties for your garden. I grow four varieties: ‘Borealis’, ‘Tundra’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Berry Blue’. All haskaps bloom early and ripen their berries by late spring or early summer—making them one of the earliest berry crops, even ahead of strawberries. But take caution and don’t harvest too quickly. The berries will look ripe one to two weeks before they are ready to be eaten. If the berries are green inside, they are not ready. They’ll turn a deep purple-red inside when they are truly ripened and ready for harvesting.
To harvest them, place an open umbrella, a child’s plastic pool or some sheeting material on the ground and shake or whack the shrub with a stick or plastic bat. The berries readily drop off. After shaking the berries loose from the shrub, some gardeners use a leaf blower to blow away the leaf debris, but I prefer to pick through the harvest by hand.
Except for occasional mildewing after the fruiting is complete, the haskap stays virtually pest and disease free. If deer trouble your garden, you may need a fence to protect the shrubs. Birds, especially cedar waxwings, are the biggest problem facing haskaps. The birds might ignore the berries for a time, but once they notice them you will need to protect your crop with netting. Netting with half-inch cross wires is recommended. This size will keep birds out yet prevent them from getting tangled in the netting. Once other berry crops begin to ripen, birds tend to ignore the haskap. If the intent of your garden is to attract wildlife, the haskap is an excellent addition.
Haskaps contain valuable nutrients like vitamin C, anthocyanins and other antioxidants, as well as fiber and potassium. They supply more antioxidants than red raspberries, wild blueberries, cranberries and strawberries. Many varieties produce berries that are excellent eaten fresh, straight off the shrub, but the berries are superb for jam, pies, tarts or any favorite recipe that calls for berries, especially blueberries. Haskap cheesecake is an absolute delight. Some claim that haskaps make a better muffin than the blueberry because the skin disintegrates when cooked. Substitute for blueberries in your favorite muffin recipe and see for yourself. Ice cream and smoothie makers love the fact that the skin breaks down. The fruit turns dairy products a bright purplish red, making it very popular in yogurt. Amateur wine makers have claimed haskaps to be the fruit most comparable to grapes for making wine. Haskap wine has a rich burgundy color.
Haskaps freeze well, so you can have them year-round. I have four haskap bushes; last year I froze enough berries to last until my next batch will be ready for harvest this June. I haven’t tried dehydrating the fruit, but others have, and they report that the dried berries have a chewy texture, like soft raisins.
7 Haskaps for the Home Garden
To ensure fruit set, grow at least two plants, each a different variety.
‘Aurora’ is noted for having the largest berries with the sweetest taste.
‘Berry Blue’ produces a sweet and tangy berry that tastes like wild blueberries. One of the taller types, it can reach six feet.
‘Borealis’ appears more often in the home garden than commercial orchards. It is one of the best tasting and best suited for handpicking.
‘Cinderella’ is a smaller cultivar, growing to three feet.
‘Honey Bee’ is highly productive, with slightly tart berries, and it’s also a good pollinator for all other varieties. It can grow to six feet.
‘Indigo Gem’ offers sweet and slightly chewy fruit, great for eating fresh.
‘Tundra’ has a lower yied than other varieties, but its fruit is very easy to pick and lacks some of the tang of ‘Borealis’.
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