What is the best food you ever tasted? Tim Wood, plant hunter, says it’s haskap sauce on ice cream. Haskap? Have you eaten haskap berries?
They’re Lonicera caerulea, and you don’t have to know a lot of botanical terms to know that Lonicera is a honeysuckle, but who knew honeysuckles produced delicious edible fruit?
These shrubs are being marketed in the U.S. under various names. One Green World calls them “Honey berries,” Proven Winners “Sweetberry honeysuckle,” Wayside Gardens “Honeyberry,” and Raintree nursery “Blue honeyberries,” for instance. I’ve seen them in catalogs for the past few years, and when I asked the late Lon Rombough about them, he said there was a lot of breeding activity going on with them, and advised waiting. Maybe it’s time to act now.
They’re Northern Hemisphere circumpolar shrubs, known as haskaps in Japan, zhimolost in Russia and generally honeyberry in the U.S. Friends in Canada call them haskaps. They’re like oval or long blueberries up to about an inch long, but have a flavor some describe as blackberry, cherry, grape or kiwi-flavor. They’re very thin-skinned, and seem to melt in the mouth. Wood describes their flavor as raspberry, blueberry and raisin.
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Some of these shrubs grow up to 8 feet tall by 8 feet wide, but some are smaller. For maximum harvest, you’ll need two shrubs of different varieties. The main difference between the Japanese haskaps and the Russian varieties is that the Japanese varieties are sweeter and less bitter than the Russian. Now retired from Oregon State University, plant breeder Dr. Maxine Thompson has worked for years breeding new cultivars of the Japanese haskaps, L. caerulea var. emphyllocalyx, native to Hokkaido. The fruit is larger than Eastern European or Russian varieties and they bloom about four to six weeks later, more reliably avoiding frost damage. That means blossoms appear at a favorable time for pollinators.
Spring Meadow Nursery is selling some of Dr. Thompson’s haskaps under the name yezberry. Yez was a previous name for that northern Japanese island we call Hokkaido. Yezberry shrubs are a little smaller than the Eastern European varieties, at about 6 feet in height and breadth. They’re hardy to minus 40 degrees, and unlike blueberries are not particular about pH. They’re adaptable to our alkaline soils, wet or dry soil, and require at least part sun exposure. Call local nurseries for availability. Edwards Greenhouse, for instance, carried Spring Meadow’s versions last year, and plan to carry them in Spring, 2016.
They may fruit a little their second year, but will fruit more heavily at age 3 or 4. Even in maturity, they don’t bear as heavily as commercial blueberries, though. They fruit on old wood, so if you’re going to prune, you should only prune out old wood that’s blocking sunlight from the interior of the shrub. If you want to grow them as a hedge, space plants one meter apart. They bloom in spring, and opened blossoms can take considerable cold without damage, 20 degrees according to one report. These shrubs thrive with good fertilizing, about the same formula and application you’d give to tomatoes.
Unlike many other unusual berries, these elongated blueberries are easy and safe to harvest, since there are no thorns. Goji, Aronia and Seaberry shrubs, for instance, do have thorns that complicate harvesting berries.
The Japanese honeyberries are also delicious tasting without added sugar, unlike many other of the unusual berries. Are they also nutritious? Yes, they’re rich in antioxidants, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C, for instance. Ripe honeyberries have purple skin and interiors, adding to their antioxidant content.
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Some folks may be cutting into very large squashes, but would rather not use all of that food at once. Carol Deppe, author of “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties” and “The Resilient Gardener,” says you can cut out a portion of a large squash, then as it beads moisture onto its cut surface, you can spread that moisture over the entire cut with your finger. It will form a barrier to mold or decay, she says.